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What is the Meaning of a Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax in the Bible

Lori Colbo loves to write about her Christian faith and the Bible to encourage and inspire others.

A bruised reed He will not break,

and smoking flax He will not quench.

Isaiah 42:3


Most people fly right by the Isaiah 42:3 verse about a bruised reed and smoking flax. We keep going because the verbiage and imagery are unfamiliar. It's a mystery in our current day. Most know that a reed is a tall grass (there are various kinds) but what does it mean that it's bruised and won't be broken? Flax is a flowering plant and it's seeds and oil are used for food, and textiles, but what does it mean when it says a smoking flax will not be quenched? And who is it that won't break or quench them? What is the message and how does it apply to our lives, if at all?

Christ is the One

Isaiah 42 is a prophecy about the coming Christ. In the first verse, God introduces us to the coming Christ, as the Servant and Elect One that He upholds and delights in. God says, "I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles." A striking statement since the gentiles practiced idolatry and their practices were very evil. But the gospel would go out to the gentiles after Jesus had ascended to heaven and the apostles began to preach in the gentile nations.

Verse two says, "He will not cry out, nor raise His voice, nor cause His voice to be heard in the street." Jesus often needed to project his voice so the crowds could hear Him; but this speaks of Christ's gentle and humble nature. There was no ego tripping and bravado. He came as the Light, offering the hope of salvation and eternal life.

In verse three we come to the reed and the flax. "A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench; He will bring forth justice for truth."

So we now know the "Who" it is that does not break the bruised reed and will not quench the smoking flax — Jesus Christ.

Bruised reeds shall have no blows from Him, and the smoldering wick no damping frowns."

— Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Morning and Evening

Bruised Reeds Are Hurting People

Certain varieties of reeds are delicate, fragile, and easily injured by harsh weather or perhaps by an animal or person stepping on them. Reeds are hollow inside. They are vulnerable. The ground beneath them is usually soft as they grow around the muddy shore of a swamp, pond, lake, or river. There are no people around to care about one little injured reed. They grow wild. They get lost in the taller and stronger reeds.

The bruised reed is a fragile, hurting person in need of care. They are weighted down by sin, sickness, or life circumstances. They are injured and without God's help may break altogether. Isaiah 40:6 -7 says, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of the Lord lasts forever."

Think of the woman caught in adultery who was brought to Jesus by the religious leaders. Imagine the shame and humiliation this woman was experiencing. The Pharisees wanted to break this bruised reed and stone her, but more than that, they wanted to test Jesus. If He let her go, they could accuse Him of breaking the law of Moses, which says a person must be stoned for adultery. If He had her stoned, He would be breaking Roman law which could bring trouble. Jesus didn't bite. While they pressed Him, He wrote on the ground, which most commentators believe was a list of their sins. Finally, He said, "He who is without sin, let him cast the first stone." He wrote on the ground again, and one by one they left, knowing they were guilty of sin. Then Jesus asked the woman, "Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one Lord." So He told her, "Go and sin no more," (John 8:1-11). He mended the bruised reed instead of breaking her.

The woman with an issue of blood (Mark 5: 25-34) had been bleeding for twelve years. She had to live outside of society because she was considered unclean. She was broke, having spent all her resources on useless treatments by physicians. She was very sick after twelve years of constant bleeding. She was likely anemic, weak, and had other medical problems. This left her desperate enough to risk entering the crowds in her unclean status to seek healing. This was her last chance and she went for it. Her faith was enormous. She humbly and discreetly touched the hem of His garment. Though she was fearful and trembling, when Jesus asked "Who touched Me," she had the courage and humility to admit it was her. Jesus made this bruised reed well. He did not crush her by sending her away; He did not rebuke her for being unclean in public and making Him unclean by touching Him. He praised this bruised reed for her faith and healed her. What a tender, merciful Savior and Healer.

The woman is caught in adultery.

The woman is caught in adultery.

Smoking Flax Are Hurting People

Flax was used as wicks for small household lamps. The lamp was made of clay and olive oil was used as fuel. Flax wicks didn't have as much staying power as the modern wax wicks we use today. If you weren't paying attention, you'd find it smoldering. Most people would put out a smoldering wick because it was easier just to put a new one in. These little lamps did not burn bright. It gave you just enough light if you were moving around to see one foot in front of you.

In Psalm 119:105 the Psalmist says, "Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path." It is said that they are referring to such a small lamp."

Such a smoldering wick was the lame man lying by the pool of Bethesda waiting for the waters to stir so he could get into the water and be healed, and unlikely feat. The sick gathered at that pool believing the water brought healing. The man had been infirm for thirty-eight years and who knows how long he rested by the pool. Jesus came by and asked him if he wanted to be healed. The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; but while I am coming, another steps down before me." It's likely he had tried to drag himself to the pool before and no one had tried to help him.

Rather than pick the man up and put him in the pool, or scold him for believing such nonesense and leave him, Jesus commanded him to rise and take up his mat and walk. Instantly he was healed, (John 5:1-8). Jesus did not snuff out this smoldering flax. He fanned the flame by His healing power and truth, and brought life and vitality to the man.

Zacchaeus was another smoldering wick. In Luke 19:1-10, we see Zacchaeus, a dastardly Jew in the employ of Rome as a tax collector and a traitor. His life appeared to be empty, hopeless, and desperate. The Jews hated him, the Romans hated him, he was merely a pawn. He'd heard of Jesus and when he heard the crowds shout His name, he desperately went up into a sycamore tree to get a view of Him, for he was a short man. Not many people climb trees to see someone coming. It's undignified. What was Zacchaeus hoping would happen? Dare he hope anything? Imagine his shock when Jesus stopped at the tree and said, "Zacchaeus, make haste and come down, for today I must stay at your house.” It's a wonder Zacchaeus didn't fall out of the tree. The story says he made hast to come down and received Him joyfully. I'm guessing "joyfully" doesn't begin to describe what he felt. When he took Jesus to his house and began the festivities, he promised Jesus he would give half his goods to the poor and repay everyone he cheated. In a few moments Zacchaeus was a changed man. Jesus marveled, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he also is a son of Abraham; for the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Zacchaeus was lost and hopeless. But Jesus did not reject him, He made the flame ignite and gave Zacchaeus a new life.


Lessons from This Passage

Jesus got a lot of flack from the religious leaders for these healings. They were always trying to trip Him up and find a reason to capture and kill Him. But they did not deter Him from helping the bruised reeds and smoking flax. He put the Father's will and the people's well being before all else.

As we are to be more like Jesus, I think there are at least two lessons we can take away from this passage and the stories:

Know and remember that Jesus will not break you or quench you if you open your heart to Him. He loves us and it is His great pleasure to forgive, heal, and bring hope to hurting people.

Also, as followers of Christ, we need to learn to be as gracious as Jesus was; to see hurting people the way you would want Jesus and others to see you when you are hurting.

© 2022 Lori Colbo

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