The Bruised Reed and the Flickering Candle
by John MacDuff
"Comfort, comfort My people!" says your God. Isaiah 40:1
"A bruised reed he will not break, and a flickering candle he will not snuff out!" Isaiah 42:3
No verse in this beautiful chapter, nor in this "Book of Comfort," is more comforting than this. God has His strong ones in His Church — His oaks of Bashan and cedars of Lebanon; noble forest trees, spreading far and wide their branches of faith and love and holiness — those who are deeply rooted in the truth, able to wrestle with fierce tempests of unbelief, and to grapple with temptations in their sterner forms.
But He has His weaklings and His saplings also — those that require to be tenderly shielded from the blast, and who are liable, from constitutional temperament, to become the prey of doubts and fears, to which the others are total strangers. Sensitive in times of trial, irresolute in times of difficulty and danger, unstable in times of severe temptation; or it may be in perpetual disquietude and alarm about their spiritual safety. To such, the loving ways and dealings of the Savior are thus unfolded, "A bruised reed shall He not break, and the flickering candle shall He not snuff out." Let us proceed to note the beauty and significance of the twofold figure.
(1.) The bruised reed. The reed, or "calamus," is a plant with hollow stem, which grew principally by the side of lakes or rivers. Those who have been in Palestine are familiar with it in the tangled thickets which still line the shores of the ancient lake Gennesaret, or, above all, in the dense thicket fringing the banks of the Jordan. The plant might well be taken as an emblem of whatever was weak, fragile, brittle. The foot of the wild beast which made its lair in the jungle — trampled it to pieces. Its slender stalk bent or snapped under the weight of the bird that sought to make it a perch. The wind and hail-storm shivered its delicate tubes, or laid them prostrate on the ground.
"A reed shaken by the wind," was the metaphor employed by One, whose eyes, in haunts most loved and frequented by Him — had ofttimes gazed on this significant emblem of human weakness and instability.
Once broken, it was rendered of no use. Other stems which had been bent by the hurricane might, by careful nursing and tending, be recovered; but the reed, once shattered, became worthless. In a preceding chapter (Isaiah 36:6) it is thus spoken of as an emblem of tottering, fragile Egypt, "Lo you trust in the staff of this broken reed — on Egypt, whereon, if a man leans — it will go into his hand and pierce it!"
Some have considered that a reference is made, in the present passage, to the reeds which the shepherds of old used in their rustic pipes on the hills of Canaan. One of these reeds — bruised, split, or broken, would make the whole instrument discordant. We may imagine David playing on such an instrument in the valleys of Bethlehem, before he got his golden harp on Mount Zion. He would probably fashion that mountain-pipe with his own hands — plucking the reeds from some watercourse among the hills of Judah as he was watching his father's sheep, and using it as an accompaniment to "the Lord's song." But if one of the tubes had received an injury, what would he do? He would never think of repairing it; but taking the instrument to pieces, he would throw the mutilated and bruised reed away, and meander down to the ample reed-forest in the valley, to insert a new one.
'Not such' says Christ, 'are my dealings with any of my people, who may be broken with convictions of sin, and wounded in conscience — I will not break the bruised reed!' Or rather, as that negative assertion is the Hebrew way of conveying a strong affirmative — it is equivalent to saying, that He will bind up the broken heart, that He will cement the splintered stem of the hanging bulrush, endowing it with new life and strength and vigor, causing it to "spring up among the grass, as willows by the watercourses" — that He will pardon, pity, comfort, relieve!
Look at that same sweet Psalmist of Israel: who was more a "bruised reed" than he? God had inspired his soul — made it a many-stringed instrument in discoursing His praise; but now it lies a broken mutilated thing, with the stain of crimson guilt upon it — tuneless and silent. "I kept silence," says he, "my bones waxed old through my roaring all the day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me, my moisture is turned into the drought of summer." Does God desert him? does He cast the reed away, and seek to replace the void by another, worthier and better? Does He mock the cry of penitential sorrow, as through anguished tears that stricken one thus implored forgiveness, "Have mercy upon me, O God — according to Your loving-kindness! According to the multitude of Your tender mercy — blot out my transgression!"
No! Hear him detail his own experience,"I acknowledged my sin unto You, and my iniquity have I not hid; I said, I will confess my transgressions unto the Lord — and You forgave the iniquity of my sin." And then he takes up the retuned instrument, and sings for the encouragement of others, "For this shall everyone that is godly pray unto You in a time when You may be found."
In the case of some aromatic plants — it is when bruised they give forth the sweetest fragrance. So, it is often the soul, crushed with a sense of sin — which sends forth the sweetest aroma of humility, gratitude, and love. "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."
(2.) The flickering candle. But, not only is it predicted of this coming Savior, that "the bruised reed He shall not break," it is added, "The wick (flickering candle) he will not snuff out." We may be warranted perhaps in taking this second metaphor to apply, not so much to those who are haunted with the remembrance of any special or presumptuous sin — as to those who gradually, perhaps almost imperceptibly, have suffered declension in spiritual things — who are mourning the general languor of their spiritual life, the deterioration or decay of their Christian graces. They hear others spoken of as being "strong in faith" — but their faith is not entitled to the name. They hear of others spoken of as ardent in love — but they cannot mock so noble and heavenly a grace by identifying it with their own. They read, in the case of others, of glowing ecstasies and holy experiences — but they are strangers to all such. If they have the retrospect of better times — now at all events, they can only tell of declension and backsliding. If they can revert to hallowed hours, which still linger, like a strain of far off music, in their memories — these have now only left behind them an aching void and gloomy silence.
Like Samson they go forth — but it is with shorn locks, weak and powerless. Like the children of Israel once "carrying bows" — they have now "turned faint in the day of battle." Once under the palm-groves of Elim, and drinking its refreshing wells — they are now dwelling in the dark tents of Kedar. The joy of their piety is departed; and if they were asked for some image to describe their feelings, they would point to the flickering candle, smouldering and no more — "the glimmering wick of faith," as Jerome calls it — the reeking smoke already rising, as if premonitory of its entire extinction.
Such a flickering candle was the once hero-hearted Prophet Elijah, seated amid the crude rocks of Horeb; away from duty — morbid, sullen, panic-stricken — forgetful of the encouragements of mount Carmel and the miracles of brook Cherith — indulging in the ungrateful soliloquy, "It is enough, take away my life!" God has forgotten me! Does the Great Being he thus unworthily distrusted, accept him at his word? Does He crush the feeble spark, or leave the desert whirlwind to blow out the flickering, expiring flame? No! "What are you doing here, Elijah?" "Arise; go anoint Jehu, go anoint Hazael; go back to duty; I will yet make you a burning and a shining light in Israel."
Such a flickering candle (to take a New Testament example), was the cowardly Apostle Peter, as he is seen skulking with uneasy step, in a momentous hour, within the vestibule of the high-priest's palace. Peter, indeed, was an illustration of the bruised reed and flickering candle in one. In his case, too, it was not the gradual wasting and expiring of the flame — but rather its threatened swift extinction — about to be quenched in sudden darkness. It is a terrible collapse of loud profession and parade of courage! He has deserted his Master in the hour He most needed his sympathy and presence and loyal fidelity. The proud vessel of yesterday, bounding with full sail under favoring breezes — lies today, seemingly an abandoned, dismantled hulk on the rocks! But is that vessel hopelessly to be broken up, and its fragments scattered over the trough of the ocean? Is there no tide of love that will once more set it floating on the waters? Is that flickering candle to burn itself out in darkness and despair? Has the vital spark really fled and left nothing save the sickening fumes — the memories of apostasy, the breach of plighted faith and sworn discipleship — with the deep aggravation of oaths and curses? Are there no words of forgiving tenderness that are yet to fan the "flickering candle" into its old flame, transform weakness — into strength; cowardice — into heroic devotion?
Yes! "Go your way, tell His disciples — and Peter," was the message of personal kindness and mercy. 'Go and tell the most traitorous of these disciples — the candle that has burnt most feebly, that I am to come again and fan it into deathless consecration!' And so it was.
When the faithless disciple and the faithful Master confronted one another, face to face, at the Lake of Tiberias, and when the fire of coals was kindled on the shore (fit emblem of the better rekindling of apparently smothered and extinguished life and love), see how the tenderest of rebukes ever uttered to the erring — brought tears to the eye — and burning confessions, thrice repeated, to the lip. The slumbering ashes of an unquenched and unquenchable devotion awoke. The flickering candle burst into a fervent flame; and from the path of duty and of suffering which he manfully trod in response to the call "Follow Me," there was, from that day onwards, no deflection!
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever; and for all who feel, in their own case, the accuracy of the figure "flickering candle," He has words of encouragement and heart-cheer. Listen to the voice which addressed Peter by the lake-side of Gennesaret, as it was heard, yet a few years later, from the Throne of Glory, admonishing one of the Asiatic churches and its individual members.
That church had become lukewarm, backsliding, lethargic, apostate. It is described, not by His inspired servant — but by His own lips of Omniscience — (seen by Him who walks in the midst of the golden candlesticks, and "whose eyes are as a flame of fire") — as having "a name that you live and are dead" (Revelation 3:1). What is His verdict and deliverance on those thus trembling on the verge of a confirmed apostasy — apparently dead while they live? Is it, 'Bury the dead out of my sight! Cast the bruised reed away! Quench and extinguish that flickering candle, which is only rising like defiled incense from my holy altar, and polluting my holy courts!' No! "Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, which are ready to die" (verse 2).
BACKSLIDER! whatever may have been the cause of present alienation from the "God of your life" — do not surrender yourself to an unwarranted despondency. The cry of the truant wanderer from the fold, as it mourns its estrangement and longs for return — will not be unheard by the Shepherd of souls. The wail of the disconsolate spouse, rising as it does from the depths of a yet devoted heart, will not fail to reach the ear of the loved and lost One she seeks: "Tell me, O You whom my soul loves, where You feed, where You make Your flock to rest at noon? For why should I be as one who turns aside by the flocks of Your companions?" (Song of Solomon 1:7).
No, He will not reject your faith because it is weak, nor your love because it is feeble. He will not despise the day of small things. Even to the Philadelphian Church, which had only a little strength, there was set before it "an open door which no man could shut" (Revelation 3:8). There is life in the weak ant — as well as in the lordly lion. There is life in the tiny moss or spire of grass — as well as in the giant tree. There is life in the helpless infant — as well as in the full grown man. So, both "little faith" as well as "great faith" indicate the existence of spiritual life; and once the spiritual life has commenced — it can never die. He who has begun the good work will carry it on — that life is "hid with Christ in God."
Unlike the candle of the wicked — who can put out the candle of the godly? Not God, for He has justified His people. Not Christ, for He has died for His people. Not the Holy Spirit, for He seals His people the day of everlasting redemption. Not death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers; for none shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord!
Yes, and if we were to ascend amid the throng of the upper sanctuary, we would see, among glorified lamps set in that heavenly Temple, those who were once "flickering candles," feeble sparks — but who now, purified from the smoke and dross of earthly corruption, are shining "like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever!"
"When anxiety was great within me — Your comfort gave me renewed hope and cheer!" Psalm 94:19