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Healing for the Bruised Reed from the Heavenly Doctor Sibbes

Gregory E. Reynolds

This month I offer the first of a new series of brief reviews of classic Christian literature, covering the large territory from Augustine to Packer, titled Servant Classics. Classics are those books that have endured over many decades or centuries because of outstanding quality of the thought and its articulation by the author; they are relevant beyond the time in which they were written. And they are often well known but not well read. I begin with a Puritan classic by the “heavenly doctor Sibbes,” The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax (1630). In good Puritan fashion Sibbes expounds the twentieth verse of Jesus’s quotation of Isaiah 42:1–4 in Matthew 12:18–21: “A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench, till he send forth judgment unto victory” (quoting Isaiah 42:3 where the KJV translates the last word “truth” instead of “victory”). As one who identified with the metaphors of bruised reed and smoking flax, my soul found just the right medicine in the heavenly doctor’s exposition. Reading it again this year in the Scolar Press edition rekindled the old spark.

During the summer of 1974, I was in New Hampshire doing an internship and taking a course in world history in order to insure my graduation from Covenant College in 1975. While perusing old books in the Dimond library at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, I came across a facsimile of the first edition (1630) of Sibbes’s The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax. I had just begun collecting antiquarian religious books, so the challenge of the antique orthography and typography was pleasant. But the content was superlative. At the time I was struggling with assurance, especially under the pressure of preparing two sermons a week for most of the summer. The full title in the original is: THE BRVISED REEDE AND SMOAKING FLAX. Some Sermons contracted out of the 12.of Matth.20. As the desire, and for the good of weaker Christians. In Matthew 12:20 Jesus is quoting Isaiah 42:3.

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) was an English Puritan with a BA and MA from St. John’s College, Cambridge. In 1603 he was converted under the preaching of Paul Baynes at the Church of St. Andrews in Cambridge. He was ordained in 1608 and received the bachelor of divinity in 1610. Under his preaching at Holy Trinity Church and Gray’s Inn several eminent preachers were converted—among them was John Cotton. After receiving his doctor of divinity degree at Cambridge he became known as “the Heavenly Doctor Sibbes.”[1] Biographer Isaac Walton said of him, “Of this blessed man, let this just praise be given, Heaven was in him, before he was in heaven.”[2] In 1633 Charles I gave Sibbes the pastorate of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, where he served until his death. His gentleness caused him to avoid controversy and to influence a wide range of Christians. “Where most holiness is, there is most moderation, where it may be without prejudice of piety to God and the good of others.”[3] His brilliance was channeled through his piety, so that when he preached he sought to “allure [his hearers] to the entertainment of Christ’s mild, safe, wise, victorious government.”[4]

Here is a sample of the pastoral comfort offered by Sibbes from the 1630 facsimile followed by a modernized version:

First therefore for the great consolation of poore and weake Christians, let them know, that a spark from heaven though kindled under green wood that sobbes and smoakes, yet it will consume all at last, Love once kindled is strong as death, much water cannot quench it, and therefore it is called a vehement flame, or flame of God, kindled in the heart by the Holy Ghost.

The first use of this truth is for the great consolation of poor and weak Christians. Let them know that a spark from heaven, even though kindled under greenwood that pops and smokes, yet it will consume it all at last. Love once kindled is as strong as death. Many waters cannot quench it; therefore it is called a vehement flame, or the flame of God (Song of Sol. 8:6); it is kindled in the heart by the Holy Ghost. [5]

Sibbes was skilled in unpacking metaphors like fire and sparks.

There is a special blessing in that little spark. “As the new wine is found in the cluster, and one says, ‘do not destroy it for a blessing is in it’: so will I do for my servants” sakes’ (Isa. 65:8). We see how our Savior Christ bore with Thomas in his doubting (John 20:27), and with the two disciples that went to Emmaus, who wavered as to whether he came to redeem Israel or not (Luke 24:21). He did not quench that little light in Peter which was smothered: Peter denied him, but he did not deny Peter (Luke 22:61). “If you will, you can,” said one poor man in the Gospel (Matt. 8:2). “If you can do anything,” said another (Mark 9:22). Both were smoking flax. Neither of them was quenched.[6]

Sibbes hews the fine line between antinomianism and legalism, giving the believer with a spark of grace, hope that the Lord will complete the work he has begun, while instilling a love of Jesus and holiness in the sinner’s life. Treat yourself to the remedy of assurance, and as officers in the church pass on the prescription to those in need.

Available Editions

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax 1630 (Menston, Yorkshire, England: The Scolar Press, 1973).

________, The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax (repr. 1630, Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998).

________, The Bruised Reed (1630), (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1998); Updated language, notes, additional verses, corrections, and formatting © William H. Gross— 12/15/2007.


[1] Joel R. Beeke and Randall J. Pederson, Meet the Puritans (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 535. All of my biographical information came from this book, 534–41.

[2] Ibid., 535.

[3] Ibid., 536.

[4] Ibid.

[5] The Bruised Reed (1630), (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth; updated language, notes, additional verses, corrections, and formatting, © William H. Gross— 12/15/2007, 46. Pages 257–8 in the Scolar Press edition.

[6] Ibid., 13.

Ordained Servant Online, October 2018.

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