Thomas Watson (1620-1686)
Excerpt from “The Godly Man’s Picture”
This text is spoken prophetically of Christ. He will not crow over the infirmities of his people; he will not crush grace in its infancy. I begin with the first, 'the bruised reed'.
Question: What is to be understood here by a reed?
Answer: It is not to be taken literally, but mystically. It is a rational reed, the spiritual part of man, the soul, which may well be compared to a reed because it is subject to imbecility and shaking in this life, till it grows up unto a firm cedar in heaven.
Question: What is meant by a bruised reed?
Answer: It is a soul humbled and bruised by the sense of sin. It weeps, but does not despair; it is tossed upon the waves of fear, yet not without the anchor of hope.
Question: What is meant by Christ's not breaking this reed?
Answer: The sense is that Christ will not discourage any mournful spirit who is in the pangs of the new birth. If the bruise of sin is felt, it shall not be mortal: 'A bruised reed shall he not break'. In the words there is an understatement; he will not break, that is, he will bind up the bruised reed, he will comfort it. The result of the whole is to show Christ's compassion to a poor dejected sinner who smites on his breast and dare hardly lift up his eye for mercy. The heart of the Lord Jesus yearns for him; this bruised reed he will not break.
In the text there are two parts:
(i) A supposition: a soul penitentially bruised.
(ii) A proposition: it shall not be broken.
Doctrine: The bruised soul shall not be broken: 'He bindeth up their wounds' (Ps 147:3). For this purpose Christ received both his mission and his unction, that he might bind up the bruised soul: 'the Lord hath anointed me to bind up the broken-hearted' (Isa 61:1). But why will Christ not break a bruised reed?
1. Out of the sweetness of his nature: 'the Lord is very pitiful [compassionate]' (James 5:11). He begets compassion in other creatures and is therefore called 'the Father of mercies' (2 Cor 1:3). And surely he himself is not without compassion. When a poor soul is afflicted in spirit, God will not exercise hardness towards it, lest he should be thought to lay aside his own tender disposition.
Hence it is that the Lord has always been most solicitous for his bruised ones. As the mother is most careful of her children who are weak and sickly, 'He shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom' (Isa 40:11). Those who have been spiritually bruised, who like lambs are weakly and tender, Christ will carry in the arms of free grace.
2. Because a contrite heart is his sacrifice (Ps 51:17). A bruised spirit sends forth tears which are like precious wine (Ps 56:8). A bruised soul is big with holy desires, yes, is love-sick. Therefore, if a bruised reed has such virtue in it, Christ will not break it. No spices, when they are bruised, are so fragrant to us as a contrite spirit is to God.
3. Because it so closely resembles Christ. Jesus Christ was once bruised on the cross: 'it pleased the Lord to bruise him' (Isa 53:10). His hands and feet were bruised with the nails; his side was bruised with the spear. A bruised reed resembles a bruised Saviour. No, a bruised reed is a member of Christ; and though it is weak, Christ will not cut it off, but will cherish it so much the more.
(i) Will Christ not break the bruised reed? This tacitly implies that he will break unbruised reeds. Those who were never touched with trouble of spirit, but live and die in impenitence, are hard reeds or, rather, rocks. Christ will not break a bruised reed, but he will break a hard reed. Many do not know what it is to be bruised reeds. They are bruised outwardly by affliction, but they are not bruised for sin. They never knew what the pangs of the new birth meant. You will hear some thank God that they were always quiet, they never had any anxiety of spirit. These bless God for the greatest curse. Those who are not bruised penitentially shall be broken judicially. Those whose hearts would not break for sin shall break with despair. In hell there is nothing to be seen but a heap of stones and a hammer. A heap of stones — that is hard hearts; a hammer — that is God's power and justice, breaking them in pieces.
(ii) Will Christ not break a bruised reed? See, then, the gracious disposition of Jesus Christ — he is full of clemency and sympathy. Though he may bruise the soul for sin, he will not break it. The surgeon may lance the body and make it bleed, but he will bind up the wound. As Christ has beams of majesty, so he has a heart of mercy. Christ has both the lion and the lamb in his escutcheon: the lion, in respect of his fierceness to the wicked (Ps 50:22), and the lamb, in respect of his mildness to his people. His name is Jesus, a Saviour, and his office is a healer (Mal 4:2). Christ made a plaster of his own blood to heal a broken heart. Christ is the quintessence of love. Someone says, 'If the sweetness of all flowers were in one flower, how sweet that flower would be!' How full of mercy is Christ, in whom all mercy meets! Christ has a skilful hand and a tender heart. 'He will not break a bruised reed.'
Some are so full of ostracism and cruelty as to add affliction to affliction, which is to lay a greater burden on a dying man. But our Lord Jesus is a compassionate High Priest (Heb 2:17). He is touched with the feeling of our infirmity. Every bruise of the soul goes to his heart. None refuse Christ, but such as do not know him. He is nothing but love incarnate. He himself was bruised to heal those who are bruised.
(iii) See, then, what encouragement there is here for faith! Had Christ said that he would break the bruised reed, then indeed there would be ground for despair. But when Christ said that he will not break a bruised reed, this opens a door of hope for humble, bruised souls. If we can say that we have been bruised for sin, why do we not believe? Why do we droop under our fears and discouragements, as if there were no mercy for us? Christ says, 'He healeth the broken in heart' (Ps 147:3). 'No,' says unbelief, 'he will not heal me.' Christ says that he will cure the bruised soul. 'No,' says unbelief, 'he will kill it.' As unbelief makes our comforts void, so it tries to make the Word void, as if all God's promises were but forgeries or like blanks in a lottery. Has the Lord said that he will not break a bruised reed? Can truth lie? Oh, what a sin unbelief is! Some think it dreadful to be among the number of drunkards, swearers and whoremongers. Let me tell you, it is no less dreadful to be among the number of unbelievers (Rev 21:8). Unbelief is worse than any other sin, because it brings God into suspicion with the creature. It robs him of the richest jewel in his crown, which is his truth: 'He that believeth not God hath made him a liar' (1 John 5:10).
Oh then, let all humbled sinners go to Jesus Christ. Christ was bruised with desertion to heal those who are bruised with sin. If you can show Christ your sores and touch him by faith, you shall be healed of all your soul bruises. Will Christ not break you? Then do not undo yourself by despair.
Use 1: Will Jesus Christ not break a bruised reed? Then it reproves those who do what they can to break the bruised reed. And they are such as try to hinder the work of conversion in others. When they see them wounded and troubled for sin, they dishearten them, telling them that religion is a sour, melancholy thing and they had better return to their former pleasures. When an arrow of conviction is shot into their conscience, these pull it out again, and will not allow the work of conviction to go forward. Thus, when the soul is almost bruised, they hinder it from a thorough bruise. This is for men to be devils to others. If to shed the blood of another makes a man guilty, what is it to damn another's soul?
Use 2: This text is a spiritual honeycomb, dropping consolation into all bruised hearts. As we give stimulants to a body suffering from a lipothymy, or fainting fit, so when sinners are bruised for their sins, I shall give some stimulant to revive them. This text is comforting to a poor soul who sits with job among the ashes and is dejected at the sense of its unworthiness. 'Ah!' says the soul, 'I am unworthy of mercy; what am I, that ever God should look on me? Those who have greater gifts and graces perhaps may obtain a look from God, but alas! I am unworthy.' Does your unworthiness trouble you? What more unworthy than a bruised reed? Yet there is a promise made to that condition: 'a bruised reed he will not break'. The promise is not made to the figtree or olive, which are fertile plants, but to the bruised reed. Though you are despicable in your own eyes, a poor shattered reed, yet you may be glorious in the eyes of the Lord. Do not let your unworthiness discourage you. If you see yourself as vile and Christ as precious, this promise is yours. Christ will not break you, but will bind up your wounds.
Question: But how shall I know that I am savingly bruised?
Answer: Did God ever bring you to your knees? Has your proud heart been humbled? Did you ever see yourself as a sinner and nothing but a sinner? Did you ever, with a weeping eye, look on Christ (Zech 12:10)? And did those tears drop from the eye of faith (Mark 9:24)? This is gospel bruising. Can you say, 'Lord, though I do not see thee, yet I love thee; though I am in the dark, yet I cast anchor'? This is to be a bruised reed.
Objection 1: But I fear I am not bruised enough.
Answer: It is hard to prescribe a just measure of humiliation. It is the same in the new birth as in the natural. Some give birth with more pangs, and some with fewer. But would you like to know when you are bruised enough? When your spirit is so troubled that you are willing to let go those lusts which brought in the greatest income of pleasure and delight. When not only is sin discarded but you are disgusted with it, then you have been bruised enough. The medicine is strong enough when it has purged out the disease. The soul is bruised enough when the love of sin is purged out.
Objection 2: But I fear I am not bruised as I should be. I find my heart so hard.
Answer 1: We must distinguish between hardness of heart and a hard heart. The best heart may have some hardness, but though there is some hardness in it, it is not a hard heart. Names are given according to the better part. If we come into a field that has tares and wheat in it, we do not call it a field of tares but a wheat field. So though there is hardness in the heart as well as softness, yet God, who judges by that part which is more excellent, looks on it as a soft heart.
Answer 2: There is a great difference between the hardness in the wicked and that in the godly. The one is natural, the other is only accidental. The hardness in a wicked man is like the hardness of a stone, which is an innate continued hardness. The hardness in a child of God is like the hardness of ice, which is soon melted by the sunbeams. Perhaps God has at present withdrawn his Spirit, so the heart is congealed like ice. But let God's Spirit, like the sun, return and shine on the heart, and now it has a gracious thaw on it and it melts in love.
Answer 3: Do you not grieve under your hardness? You sigh for lack of groans, you weep for lack of tears. The hard reed cannot weep. If you were not a bruised reed, all this weeping could not come from you.
Objection 3: But I am a barren reed; I bear no fruit; therefore I fear I shall be broken.
Answer: Gracious hearts are apt to overlook the good that is in them. They can spy the worm in the leaf but not the fruit. Why do you say you are barren? If you are a bruised reed, you are not barren. The spiritual reed ingrafted into the true vine is fruitful. There is so much sap in Christ that it makes all who are inoculated into him bear fruit. Christ distils grace like drops of dew on the soul: 'I will be as the dew unto Israel; he shall grow as the lily; his branches shall spread, and his beauty shall be as the olive tree' (Hos 14:5,6). The God who made the dry rod blossom will make the dry reed flourish.
So much for the first expression in the text. I proceed to the second: 'the smoking flax shall he not quench'.
Question: What is meant by smoking?
Answer: By smoke is meant corruption. Smoke is offensive to the eye, so sin offends the pure eye of God.
Question: What is meant by smoking flax?
Answer: It means grace mingled with corruption. As with a little fire there may be much smoke, so with a little grace there may be much corruption.
Question: What is meant by Christ's not quenching the smoking flax?
Answer: The meaning is that though there is only a spark of grace with much sin, Christ will not put out this spark. In the words there is a figure; 'he will not quench', that is, he will increase. Nothing is easier than to quench smoking flax; the least touch does it. But Christ will not quench it. He will not blow the spark of grace out, but will blow it up. He will increase it into flame, he will make this smoking flax a burning taper.
Doctrine: That a little grace mixed with much corruption shall not be quenched. For the illustrating of this I shall show you:
1. That a little grace is often mixed with much corruption
2. That this little grace mixed with corruption shall not be quenched
3. The reasons for the proposition.
1. Often in the godly a little grace is mingled with much corruption
'Lord, I believe' — there was some faith; 'help thou mine unbelief (Mark 9:24) — there was corruption mixed with it. There are, in the best saints, interweavings of sin and grace: a dark side with the light; much pride mixed with humility; much earthliness with heavenliness. Grace in the godly smacks of an old crabtree stock.
No, in many of the regenerate there is more corruption than grace. So much smoke that you can scarcely discern any fire; so much distrust that you can hardly see any faith (1 Sam 27:1); so much passion that you can hardly see any meekness. Jonah, a peevish prophet, quarrels with God, no, he justifies his passion: 'I do well to be angry, even unto death' (Jonah 4:9). Here there was so much passion that it was hard to see any grace. A Christian in this life is like a glass that has more froth than wine, or like a diseased body that has more fluids than vigour. It may humble the best to consider how much corruption is interlarded with their grace.
2. This little grace mixed with much corruption shall not be quenched
'The smoking flax he will not quench.' The disciples' faith was at first only small: 'they forsook Christ, and fled' (Matt 26:56). Here there was smoking flax, but Christ did not quench that little grace but cherished and animated it. Their faith afterwards grew stronger and they openly confessed Christ (Acts 4:29,30). Here the flax was flaming.
3. The reasons why Christ will not quench the smoking flax
(i) Because this scintilla, this little spark which is in the smoking flax, is of divine production. It comes from the Father of lights, and the Lord will not quench the work of his own grace. Everything by the instinct of nature will preserve its own. The hen that hatches her young will preserve and cherish them; she will not destroy them as soon as they are hatched. God, who has put this tenderness into the creature to preserve its young, will much more cherish the work of his own Spirit in the heart. Will he light up the lamp of grace in the soul and then put it out? This would be neither for his interest nor for his honour.
(ii) Christ will not quench the beginnings of grace, because a little grace is precious as well as more grace. A small pearl is of value. Though the pearl of faith is little, yet if it is a true pearl, it shines gloriously in God's eyes. A goldsmith takes account of the least filings of gold and will not throw them away. The apple of the eye is only little, yet it is of great use; it can at once view a huge part of the heavens. A little faith can justify; a weak hand can tie the nuptial knot; a weak faith can unite to Christ as well as a strong; a little grace makes us like God; a silver penny bears the king's image on it as well as a larger coin. The least dram of grace bears God's image on it, and will God destroy his own image? When the temples in Greece were demolished, Xerxes caused the temple of Diana to be preserved for the beauty of its structure. When God destroys all the glory of the world and sets it on fire, yet he will not destroy the least grace, because it bears a print of his own likeness on it. That little spark in the smoking flax is a ray and beam of God's own glory.
(iii) Christ will not quench the smoking flax, because this little light in the flax may grow bigger. Grace is compared to a grain of mustard seed; it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown, it is the largest of herbs, and becomes a tree (Matt 13:31,32). The greatest grace was once little. The oak was once an acorn. The most renowned faith in the world was once in its spiritual infancy; the greatest flame of zeal was once only smoking flax. Grace, like the waters of the sanctuary, rises higher (Ezek 47:1-5). If, then, the smallest embryo and seed of holiness has a ripening and growing nature, the Lord will not allow it to be abortive.
(iv) Christ will not quench the smoking flax, because when he preserves a little light in a great deal of smoke, here the glory of his power shines forth. The trembling soul thinks it will be swallowed up by sin. But God preserves a little quantity of grace in the heart — no, he makes that spark prevail over corruption, as the fire from heaven 'licked up the water in the trench' (1 Kings 18:38). So God gets himself a glorious name and carries away the trophies of honour: 'My strength is made perfect in weakness' (2 Cor 12:9).
1. See the different dealings of God and men. Men, for a little smoke, will quench a great deal of light; God, for a great deal of smoke, will not quench a little light. It is the manner of the world, if they see a little failure in another, to pass by and quench a great deal of worth because of that failure. This is our nature, to aggravate a little fault and diminish a great deal of virtue; to see the infirmities and darken the excellences of others — as we take more notice of the twinkling of a star than the shining of a star. We censure others for their passion, but do not admire them for their piety. Thus, because of a little smoke that we see in others, we quench much light.
God does not act like that. For a great deal of smoke, he will not quench a little light. He sees the sincerity and overlooks many infirmities. The least sparks of grace he cherishes, and blows them gently with the breath of his Spirit till they break forth into a flame.
2. If Christ will not quench the smoking flax, then we must not quench the smoking flax in ourselves. If grace does not increase into so great a flame as we see in others and we therefore conclude that we have no fire of the Spirit in us — that is to quench the smoking flax and to bear false witness against ourselves. As we must not credit false evidence, so neither must we deny true. As fire may be hidden in the embers, so grace may be hidden under many disorders of soul. Some Christians are so skilful at this — accusing themselves for lack of grace, as if they had received a fee from Satan to plead for him against themselves.
It is a great mistake to argue from the weakness of grace to its absence. It is one thing to be weak in faith and another to lack faith. He whose eyesight is dim has defective sight, but he is not without sight. A little grace is grace, though it is smothered under much corruption.
3. If the least spark of grace shall not be quenched, then it follows as a great truth that there is no falling from grace. If the least dram of grace should perish, then the smoking flax would be quenched. Grace may be shaken by fears and doubts, but not blown up by the roots. I grant that seeming grace may be lost; this wildfire may be blown out, but not the fire of the Spirit's kindling. Grace may be dormant in the soul, but not dead. As a man in an apoplexy does not exert vital energy, grace may be eclipsed, not extinct. A Christian may lose his comfort, like a tree in autumn that has shed its fruit, but there is still sap in the vine and 'the seed of God remaineth in him' (1 John 3:9). Grace is a flower of eternity.
This smoking flax cannot be quenched by affliction, but is like those trees of which Pliny writes — trees growing in the Red Sea, which though beaten by the waves, stand immovable, and though sometimes covered with water, flourish the more. Grace is like a true oriental diamond that sparkles and cannot be broken.
I confess it is a matter of wonder that grace should not be wholly annihilated, especially if we consider two things:
(i) The malice of Satan. He is a malignant spirit and lays barriers in our way to heaven. The devil, with the wind of temptation, tries to blow out the spark of grace in our hearts. If this will not do, he stirs up wicked men and raises the militia of hell against us. What a wonder it is that this bright star of grace should not be swept down by the tail of the dragon!
(ii) The world of corruption in our hearts. Sin makes up the major part in a Christian. There are more dregs than spirit in the best heart. The heart swarms with sin. What a deal of pride and atheism there is in the soul! Now is it not admirable that this lily of grace should be able to grow among so many thorns? It is as great a wonder that a little grace should be preserved in the midst of so much corruption as to see a taper burning in the sea and not extinguished.
But though grace lives with so much difficulty, like the infant that struggles for breath, yet being born of God, it is immortal. Grace conflicting with corruption is like a ship tossed and beaten by the waves, yet it weathers the storm and at last gets to the desired haven. If grace should expire, how could this text be verified, 'The smoking flax he will not quench'?
Question: But how is it that grace, even the least degree of it, should not be quenched?
Answer: It is from the mighty operation of the Holy Ghost. The Spirit of God, who is the source, continually excites and awakens grace in the heart. He is at work in a believer every day. He pours in oil and keeps the lamp of grace burning. Grace is compared to a river of life (John 7:38). The river of grace can never be dried up, for the Spirit of God is the spring which feeds it.
Now it is evident from the covenant of grace that the smoking flax cannot be quenched. 'The mountains shall depart, and the hills be removed; but the covenant of my peace shall not be removed, saith the Lord' (Isa 54:10). If there is falling from grace, how is it an immovable covenant? If grace dies and the smoking flax is quenched, how is our state in Christ better than it was in Adam? The covenant of grace is called 'a better covenant' (Heb 7:22). How is it a better covenant than that which was made with Adam? Not only because it has a better Surety and contains better privileges, but because it has better conditions annexed to it: 'It is ordered in all things, and sure' (2 Sam 23:5). Those who are taken into the covenant shall be like stars fixed in their orbit and shall never fall away. If grace might die and be quenched, then it would not be a better covenant.
Objection: But we are bidden not to quench the Spirit (1 Thess 5:19), which implies that the grace of the Spirit may be lost and the smoking flax quenched.
Answer: We must distinguish between the common work of the Spirit and the sanctifying work. The one may be quenched but not the other. The common work of the Spirit is like a picture drawn on the ice, which is soon defaced; the sanctifying work is like a statue carved in gold, which endures. The gifts of the Spirit may be quenched but not the grace. There is the enlightening of the Spirit and the anointing. The enlightening of the Spirit may fail, but the anointing of the Spirit abides: 'the anointing which ye have received of him abideth in you' (1 John 2:27). The hypocrite's blaze goes out, the true believer's spark lives and flourishes. The one is the light of a comet which wastes and evaporates (Matt 25:8); the other is the light of a star which retains its lustre.
From all that has been said, let a saint of the Lord be persuaded to do these two things:
1. To believe his privilege.
2. To pursue his duty.
1. To believe his privilege
It is the incomparable and unparalleled happiness of a saint that his coal shall not be quenched (2 Sam 14:7). That grace in his soul which is minute and languid shall not give up the ghost but recover its strength and increase with the increase of God. The Lord will make the smoking flax a burning lamp. It would be very sad for a Christian to be continually chopping and changing: one day a member of Christ and the next day a limb of Satan; one day to have grace shine in his soul and the next day his light be put out in obscurity. This would spoil a Christian's comfort and break asunder the golden chain of salvation. But be assured, O Christian, that he who has begun a good work will ripen it to perfection (Phil 1:6). Christ will send forth judgment unto victory. He will make grace victorious over all opposing corruption. If grace should finally perish, what would become of the smoking flax? And how would that title properly be given to Christ, 'Finisher of the faith' (Heb 12:2)?
Objection: There is no question that this is an undoubted privilege to those who are smoking flax and have the least beginnings of grace, but I fear I am not smoking flax; I cannot see the light of grace in myself.
Answer: So that I may comfort the smoking flax, why do you thus dispute against yourself? What makes you think you have no grace? I believe you have more than you would be willing to part with. You value grace above the gold of Ophir. How could you see the worth and lustre of this jewel, if God's Spirit had not opened your eyes? You desire to believe and mourn that you cannot believe. Are these tears not the beginnings of faith? You desire Christ and cannot be satisifed without him. This beating of the pulse evidences life. The iron could not move upwards if the lodestone did not draw it. The heart could not ascend in holy desires for God, if some heavenly lodestone had not been drawing it. Christian, can you say that sin is your burden, Christ is your delight and, as Peter once said, 'Lord, thou knowest that I love thee' (John 21:17)? This is smoking flax and the Lord will not quench it. Your grace shall flourish into glory. God will sooner extinguish the light of the sun than extinguish the dawning light of his Spirit in your heart.
2. To pursue his duty
There are two duties required of believers:
(i) Love. Will the Lord not quench the smoking flax, but make it at last victorious over all opposition? How the smoking flax should flame in love to God! 'Oh, love the Lord, all ye his saints' (Ps 31:23). The saints owe much to God, and when they have nothing to pay, it is hard if they cannot love him. O you saints, it is God who carries on grace progressively in your souls. He is like a father who gives his son a small stock of money to begin with, and when he has traded a little, he adds more to the stock. So God adds continually to your stock. He drops oil into the lamp of your grace every day and so keeps the lamp burning. This may inflame your love to God, who will not let the work of grace fail but will bring it to perfection: 'the smoking flax he will not quench.' How God's people should long for heaven, when it will be their constant work to breathe out love and sound out praise!
(ii) Labour. Some may think that if Christ will not quench the smoking flax, but make it burn brighter to the meridian of glory, then we need take no pains but leave God to do his own work. Take heed of drawing so bad a conclusion from such good premises. What I have spoken is to encourage faith, not to indulge sloth. Do not think God will do our work for us while we sit still. As God will blow up the spark of grace by his Spirit, so we must be blowing it up by holy efforts. God will not bring us to heaven sleeping, but praying. The Lord told Paul that all in the ship should come safely to shore, but it must be by the use of means: 'Except these abide in the ship, ye cannot be saved' (Acts 27:31). So the saints shall certainly arrive at salvation. They shall come to shore at last, but they must stay in the ship, in the use of ordinances, else they cannot be saved. Christ assures his disciples: 'None shall pluck them out of my hand' (John 10:28). But he still gives that counsel, 'Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation' (Matt 26:41). The seed of God shall not die, but we must water it with our tears. The smoking flax shall not be quenched, but we must blow it up with the breath of our effort.
The second comfort to the godly is that godliness promotes them to a close and glorious union with Jesus Christ. But I reserve this for the next chapter.
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