Among the early English Puritans, perhaps none has greater pastoral insight and enduring readability than Richard Sibbes and I write to honor his devotional classic The Bruised Reed. First published in 1630, the book opens with Matthew 12:18–21, which cites Isaiah 42.
Behold, my servant whom I have chosen . . . a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.
Reeds grew by the millions in marshes and river banks in Israel, so they had scant value. One could cut and shape a reed to serve as a measure, flute, or writing implement. But a bruised reed was worthless. If a perfect reed is fragile and a bruised one is useless, why will Jesus not break a bruised reed and why does it matter?
It matters because we are bruised reeds. Notice, Sibbes said, that Jesus compares us to a weak thing, as Scripture often does. Among the birds, we are doves; among the beasts, we are sheep.
In the eyes of Jesus, everyone—everyone—is a bruised reed. Some can go years without a serious bruising. Some have a sunny disposition even when storms descend. Others thrive on crises. Still others grow up in Christian homes, with wise and loving parents, and then they married well. Nonetheless, all are bruised reeds.
Everyone is wounded. If we cannot see this, the Lord may intervene so that we do. We cannot rise to maturity unless we see our immaturity, cannot rest in his grace until we see our need for grace. Therefore the Lord may bruise us and humble us, so he can reestablish us on a better foundation. To be bruised is to see our sin, our weakness, and the consequences of both. We also have weaknesses, quite apart from sin. We have areas of inability, even incompetence, so that we need others. The bruised reed is weak at best. A bruised reed cannot heal itself and the wise person knows this. Yet the hope of healing remains, for the bruised reed looks beyond itself, to Christ.
There are two kinds of bruised reed: the rebel and the believer. Rebels, like skeptic and spiritual sluggards, have no interest in spiritual things. God may use pain, a bruising, to pierce and waken a rebel or sluggard, so that he or she comes to faith. The gospel may cease to be a rumor and become the life-giving narrative of God’s work. That bruising may enable him or her to treasure Christ. As Sibbes said, “Then the gospel becomes the gospel indeed.” For another person, the bruising may instigate a quest. Jesus says, “Seek and you will find” (Matt. 7:7). The Lord guides the quest of bruised reeds who sincerely seek healing.
The Lord also bruises believers. Believers must know that they are reeds too—often weak, tossed and beaten by storms. Peter realized that he was a reed when he denied Jesus three times. He wept bitterly, but he took his tears, his bruises, to Jesus. So too, our failures can show that we are bruised, especially if we fail in a public way.
David bruised himself when he committed adultery with Bathsheba. He was shattered until he repented and felt God healing his bones (Ps. 32). When we fail morally, whether anyone ever knows or not, we should see that we are bruised reeds.
The king of Israel bruised Jeremiah when he sliced up and burned his prophecy. Jeremiah prophesied and wrote again, but the king proved Jeremiah’s fragility. At work, we can labor for months and see it all come to naught with one sentence from a boss: “I don’t think we’ll go that way” or “You’re not ready for that assignment.” We are bruised reeds in our work.
The Lord bruised Paul with a thorn in his flesh. That pain taught Paul humility and dependence on God. The Lord humbles us when our bodies get sick or age and fail us. We are bruised reeds.
Our bruises grieve us. We wish we were stronger, but when we see the bruises on the great men and women of the faith, we take heart. Everyone suffers bruises that dissolve our overweening pride. God bruises the saints to teach us to lean on Christ alone. When we are bruised, we are in good company. Our bruising is God’s good work, if we receive it.
The blows of life can drive out pride and self-sufficiency. They can lead us to true strength. Bruises can lead unbelievers to the Lord for the first time. They can lead believers back to the Lord, for even a mature Christian can forget the gospel and live by law or self-discipline and trust his imagined strength. When we trust our knowledge or skill, we can forget the Lord. Our bruises teach us to run, even to crawl, to Christ, to reset our coordinates so they lead us back to him.
Furthermore, God limits the impact of our bruises, even if the pain can be terrible. Psalm 129:1–3 has another graphic image of affliction: “The plowers plowed upon my back; they made long their furrows. The Lord is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked.” The point is simple: We experience long and painful wounds at the hands of others, but the Lord limits the power of the wicked, so their afflictions, their violence, lies, and betrayals, do not destroy us.
Bruising can leave us dismayed or angry. It can make us doubt our faith, doubt the goodness of God. So we remember that God cuts the cords of the wicked.
We also remember that Jesus blesses the bruised, saying, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3). He invites the bruised, the weary, and the heavy laden to come to him. He compares himself to a shepherd. He grieves and helps when he sees his people harassed and helpless (9:36). Above all, Jesus was bruised for us, that we might be healed. Isaiah says Jesus was “stricken by God . . . He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:4–5).
Because Jesus bore that great bruising, the bruising of God’s children is chastisement and correction, but not punishment. The Lord bruises us for our good. He teaches us to return to him and find healing. So he is patient with bruised reeds “until he leads justice to victory” (Matt. 12:20), when he fulfills his plans for righteousness and love in his new creation. So let us sit with Isaiah and Matthew’s gospel, as well as Richard Sibbes, and remember that we are bruised reeds, reeds that Jesus gently heals.
 Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed (1630; repr. Banner of Truth Trust: Carlisle, PA, 1998), 3. These notes draw on my commentary on Matthew (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2008), 506–9.
 Sibbes, Bruised Reed, 3–6.
DR. DAN DORIANI is Professor of Biblical and Systematic Theology at Covenant Seminary.