“Sibbes never wastes the student’s time,” wrote 19th century preacher C.H. Spurgeon, “he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands.” The Bruised Reed, written by Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) in 1630, lives up to Spurgeon’s words. I can tell a lot about a book by how many pages I’ve dog-eared. In this 128-page book, I found it hard to go more than a few pages without marking a page for future reference.
The Bruised Reed is an exposition of Isaiah 42:1-3:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
Sibbes outlines what it means to be a bruised reed, and the benefits of being bruised. A bruised reed represents us in our weakness. It’s necessary to be bruised even after we have grown. “After conversion we need bruising so that reeds may know themselves to be reeds, and not oaks.” Christ is not at all impatient with our weaknesses. “He is a physician good at all diseases, especially at the binding up of a broken heart.” “No sound, whole soul,” after all, “shall ever enter into heaven.”
Sibbes also describes what it is to be smoking flax. Smoking flax represents the mixture of grace and sinfulness that exists in all who love God. “In God’s children, especially in their first conversion, there is but a little measure of grace, and that little mixed with much corruption, which, as smoke, is offensive; but…Christ will not quench this smoking flax.” We should not be discouraged by our weakness. The reality is that even “the purest actions of the purest man need Christ to perfume them.” But Christ does indeed perfume us, and a little grace is enough. “Nothing in the world is of so good use as the least grain of grace.”
Humility allows us to understand ourselves rightly, and then magnify God’s name that he loves us such as we are. It also helps us to understand others who are weak when we remember our own weakness. “The Holy Spirit,” he writes, “is content to dwell in smokey, offensive souls.”
Sibbes constantly drives our attention to Christ, who “bestows the best fruits of his love on persons who are mean in condition, weak in abilities, and offensive for infirmities, nay, for grosser falls.” The strength of this book is that it clearly outlines our weakness, and then expounds the gospel in a way that meets our greatest needs and provides hope even as we continue to encounter more of our weakness.
Oh, what confusion this is to Satan, that he should labor to blow out a poor spark and yet should not be able to quench it; that a grain of mustard seed should be stronger than the gates of hell; that it should be able to remove mountains of oppositions and temptations cast up by Satan and our rebellious hearts between God and us…It must needs be a torment to Satan that a weak child, a woman, a decrepit old man should, by a spirit of faith, put him to flight.
One striking feature of this book: Sibbes often takes aim at “popery.” If you have not read a book of this vintage recently, some of these quips will seem surprising, even if one agrees with Sibbes. The book is a product of a different day than ours. Such differences in older books are good, because they force us to think through the way we assume things should be.
I read this book as part of the 2008 Puritan Reading Challenge. If the other books are half as good as this one, I’m in for a good year of reading. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote, “The Bruised Reed…quietened, soothed, comforted, encouraged, and healed me.” It just may do the same for you.