The prophet Isaiah describes the one who would be God’s special servant (42:1–4). He would be the Messiah of Israel; the perfect servant who would bring God’s salvation to the Gentiles, as well as to Israel.

Isaiah’s word picture

We are told that “a bruised reed shall he not break”. What does the use of this picture signify? The reed is a Middle Eastern plant of tall stalks which grows in water and, particularly, in the river Nile. When dry the reed can be brittle and will break easily, but when green it is easily bent and bruised but without breaking. In that state it can continue to be a living plant but is in danger of wilting and dying.

So figuratively speaking the servant of God would be the type of person who does not take a bruised reed and completely break it. Rather he leaves it, even binds it up, so it can continue to grow. Of course, the picture is not really about plants but about people and nations. The Assyrian had described Egypt, which Israel was inclined to trust in for deliverance, as a broken reed. Its bruising was beyond restoration and it had become useless (Isa 36:6). It was unable to do anything to save Judah from the Assyrian invader. These are divine characteristics shown in God’s dealings with the nation of Israel despite their disobedience. They were manifested in the deliverance of Israel from Egypt when, despite their provocations, God brought them into the promised land and gave them the inheritance which He had promised to their fathers.

The “bruised reed” speaks of one whose potential for development and usefulness has become severely restricted and is at risk of dying. Isaiah emphasizes his message by using a further similar illustration – “the smoking flax shall he not quench”. The smoking flax is the wick of an oil lamp which is almost out of oil. Rather than putting out the smoking wick, the caring servant puts more oil in the lamp and trims the wick so it burns and gives light to all around. This is the action of a good steward and is the action of God’s servant in spiritual things.

As God’s servants and as disciples of Christ we need to imitate these same characteristics and show them in our family life, in our ecclesias, and to all we meet, to demonstrate that we have learnt from Christ a more excellent way of living.

The same divine characteristics are described in various ways through Scripture, particularly by Isaiah. Here are three illustrations:

  • “Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees, Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not” (35:3–4)
  • He shall “gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young” (40:11)
  • “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength” (40:29).

While each of these speaks in terms of physical qualities, the prophet is using them of the spiritual caring and strengthening which God’s servant will provide for His people. They are characteristics of the God of heaven caring for His own.

Examples of the work of recovery and restoration

Perhaps the most prominent example is king David, a man of strong spiritual qualities who on one occasion failed in two terrible ways. His human, lustful desires prompted him to commit both adultery and the murder of one of his own loyal servants. Because of his spiritual potential for recovery, God did not remove him from the throne or reject him but provoked him to repent and seek forgiveness. As a result of his repentance God graciously forgave him, although David continued to reap the sour fruit of his sin. But he never repeated those failings and was assured of acceptance into God’s eternal Kingdom.

Another amazing example is in the life of king Manasseh. Here was a self-indulgent, ungodly king of Judah. It is recorded of him that he “did that which was evil in the sight of Yahweh, like unto the abominations of the heathen”; “he reared up altars for Baalim, and made groves, and worshipped all the host of heaven, and served them”; “he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of Yahweh”; “he caused his children to pass through the fire in the valley of the son of Hinnom”; “he set a carved image, the idol which he had made, in the house of God” and “Yahweh spake to Manasseh, and to his people: but they would not hearken” (2 Chron 33). What a terrible chronicle of evil!

Plainly Manasseh committed gross wickedness in the sight of God. Yet even in him God saw that there was potential for reform and brought upon him an invasion by the Assyrians who took him in chains to Babylon. There Manasseh realized his position before God and the extent of the evil he had done and he repented, praying earnestly to God for forgiveness. The record tells us that God was entreated of him, and he was released and returned to his people and his kingship. On his return he did all he could to show his repentance by reversing many of his previous evils. It might be thought that after his catalogue of evil he had no hope for God’s forgiveness or restoration. But here we can see the demonstration of God’s mercy and forgiveness if only men and women will turn to Him in sincerity and truth and change their lives to serve God.

“I should lose nothing”

Isaiah had foretold that in due time one would come who would pre-eminently be God’s servant. He would show those words of Isaiah in action, and deal caringly with all who came to him in a spirit of sincerity and humility. He showed that divine spirit in action; not breaking any “bruised reeds” but rather binding up so that none might be lost. Binding up is another characteristic of God’s servant, as shown in Isaiah 61:1 and in Hosea 6:1.

This is our Lord Jesus Christ. He manifested his Father’s love and compassion and, like his Father, he was “merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth” (Exod 34:6). He did not break off or discard such persons but took whatever action was possible to bind up and heal so that they became useful. We can learn much from his example.

Christ said to his disciples, following the miracle of multiplying the loaves to feed the five thousand, “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost” (John 6:12). Then he added the explanation, “this is the Father’s will which hath sent me, that of all which he hath given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up again at the last day” (v39). Of all those who come to God through Jesus Christ, none will be lost but will be raised up to eternal life when he returns to reign.

Nicodemus

This characteristic was shown early in Christ’s ministry when Nicodemus came to him by night. In John chapter 2 we read of the dramatic cleansing of the Temple by Jesus at the first Passover of his ministry and of how many believed on him because of the miracles which he performed. It is straight after those events that Nicodemus came to Jesus. We are not told why he came, or why he came by night, and Jesus didn’t need to ask. After his introductory statement that the miracles showed Jesus must be a prophet of God, Christ challenged him to consider the implications of what he had seen. He said, “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” After the cleansing of the Temple Nicodemus, as a ruler of the Jews, would have been very reluctant to accept this radical teacher from Nazareth. They regarded the Temple as their precinct and the traders were a considerable source of income for the treasury.

Remarkably Jesus didn’t judge Nicodemus for his doubts and concerns but gently led him to more deeply consider the implications of the things he had witnessed. The miracles did truly testify that God was working with him. Jesus could have treated Nicodemus as an opponent, a man with doubts like a bruised reed, but instead he did all he could to persuade him to recognize that the miracles confirmed he was the Lamb of God who had come to take away sin. It took Nicodemus quite some time to recognize the truth of the Lord’s words, but gradually he saw that Jesus was the servant sent from God bringing salvation. Over time Nicodemus became a loyal disciple. Let us note that Christ did not break him like a bruised reed when he first came but gently and caringly provided the right words which changed him from critic to disciple.

The Samaritans

Another example is in John chapter 4 when Jesus came to Samaria and met the woman of Sychar at the well. The Jews had little dealing with Samaritans and despised them as a hybrid race. But the Lord was always looking for opportunities to perform the work of his Father and call men and women to repentance. He didn’t see this woman as “a bruised reed” to be left estranged from the promises of salvation, but as someone whose life was filled with difficulties. Sometimes we think of her as a woman of poor morals but we do not know what difficulties she had experienced or how she had come to her present position. Perhaps her former husbands had died and now her domestic arrangement was the best she was able to achieve. The Lord ignored all those negative aspects and through careful comments brought her to recognize that she was indeed speaking with the Jewish Messiah. He changed her uncertainty and lack of faith into belief in his Messiahship and she was then prepared to confess him to all whom she knew.

The implications for us are very telling. Samaritans were a despised people largely devoid of any sure hope. They were like “bruised reeds” and the Lord took this woman and strengthened her faith so that she could witness to him among her friends and neighbours. The Samaritans may have been despised but John tells us that many of them believed on Jesus as the Christ because of his words. Indeed they were more ready to believe than many of the proud and self-centred Jews. The caring and encouraging words of Jesus caused them to accept his testimony as the truth from God. The fruit of his teaching was later brought to maturity when Philip went there to continue the work, as recorded in Acts 8:5–7.

Christ’s longsuffering character is again found in Luke 9:51–56. Here he was going determinedly from Galilee up to Jerusalem. He knew he was going there for the last time in his mortality to make that sacrifice of total obedience to his Father. On the way they came to a Samaritan village and the disciples endeavoured to find a place of hospitality. But the people of that village would not receive them or allow them to stay because they were going to Jerusalem. It showed the tension and lack of friendship between the Jews and the Samaritans. James and John were disgusted at this rejection of their Master. Wasn’t he the Messiah of Israel, the coming king of the world? Hadn’t he always treated the Samaritans with kindness? Indeed, hadn’t he offered them an equal opportunity to serve the living God in spirit and truth? James and John were greatly indignant and asked the Lord to bring down fire from heaven and consume that village as a witness to his power and greatness, and as a warning to others not to reject the coming king. But Jesus said no, and rebuked James and John saying, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them”, and so they passed on. It was a salutary lesson for James and John – and for us! Under pressure from his beloved friends the Lord’s emotions were held in check. He was prepared to pass over the disrespect shown to him. He was going to Jerusalem on a more important mission. He would bring salvation to those who have faith in him. Our Lord never did anything which might turn people from the way of God, but would do everything he could to call men and women to repentance and salvation.

Judas and Peter

His patient long-suffering was also shown in the way he dealt with Judas, whom Jesus knew from the beginning would betray him. Judas may have joined the band professing loyalty to Christ, but it appears his main objectives were position and power. He was tempted by the opportunity for wealth and influence which he thought association with the coming king of Israel would bring. Judas was a thief. It appears likely from Acts 1:18 that the field on which Judas later died had been purchased with monies he had stolen from the common purse. But there is no record of Jesus criticizing him for this stealing. None of the other disciples knew. Judas was always treated with the same consideration and encouragement as the others, even though Jesus knew all his secret thoughts and actions. And when Jesus let all the opportunities to take the Kingdom slip from him, Judas, because of his love of money, betrayed the Lord for 30 pieces of silver. Yet the kindly, caring character of the Lord never wavered and all he said to Judas was, “What you are going to do, do quickly”. Judas went out into the night and exchanged the offer of eternal life and a place in God’s Kingdom, for 30 pieces of silver – but with no opportunity to enjoy them. It was a transaction like Esau’s, who sold his birthright in the promises of God for a single paltry meal.

A powerful example of the Lord showing longsuffering, care and patience is in relation to the Apostle Peter. There is no doubt that Peter loved Jesus and desired to be constantly loyal to him, both for who he was and for the righteous character he presented. In Matthew 26 we read that before his betrayal Jesus warned the disciples that they would all be offended because of what was about to happen to him. Peter had protested that he would never be offended, but Jesus warned him that before the cock crowed that night Peter would deny him three times. That denial devastated Peter and he wept over it in bitterness. However, after Christ’s resurrection Peter went to him in Galilee where a full reconciliation was effected by the gentle words of the Master. He also assured the disciples that although he had to leave them he would never forsake them, saying, “lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt 28:20).

What a wonderful captain we have in the Lord Jesus Christ! What love through all his actions ran! What a role model of patient, loving care for us to follow in our interaction with fellow disciples! When faced with human weakness seen in others, what an example for us!

What of our own great need? If we follow him sincerely, in full acceptance of his leadership, he will never leave us nor forsake us. He understands our weaknesses and our difficulty in overcoming them. He cares for us and loves us to the extent that he has laid down his life for us to give us the opportunity of salvation. So we honour him with faithfulness to his cause and obedience to his will. We all pray that in the great day soon to come, when he returns to take up his Kingdom and reign, we will be accepted to participate in the glorious time of peace and righteousness on the earth. Having felt the power and wonder of his forgiveness, we will know personally, that “a bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench”!