Behold the Bruised Reed

Jonathan Landry Cruse
Friday, March 29th 2024
Multi-colored background with the words Behold the Bruised Reed in the foreground.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. (Isaiah 42:1–4)

On most Friday nights from September of 1952 through April of 1958 families across America were told to “look up in the sky.” It was, of course, the voice on their television announcing another episode of the hit show The Adventures of Superman. “Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird. It’s a plane. It’s Superman!”

The opening line of the very first of Isaiah’s famous “Servant Songs” also is a call to attention. “Look!” Or “Behold my Servant!” God wants his people to see the Servant and to see something imminently wonderful about him—something not found in anyone else. There’s a comparison at work here, just like how Superman is “faster than a speeding bullet” and “more powerful than a locomotive.” There is something that we are to see in the Servant that is greater than something else. But we miss that if we don’t start further back.

The Comparison of the Servant

Immediately preceding this first Servant Song, Isaiah draws our attention to the folly of idolatry. In chapter 41 he pictures a courtroom scene, where those who worship idols are invited to bring forth their favorite gods and have them testify: “Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen” (vv. 21–22). Here’s their chance to prove if they have what it takes to be really divine: can they predict the future? “Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods” (v. 23). There is silence in the courtroom. The idols are unable to predict coming events. Actually, it’s worse than that: they can’t do anything at all: “do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified” (v. 23b). Here is the prophet’s exasperation: “Just do something! But the reality is that they cannot do anything, for they are nothing. “Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you” (v. 24).

There’s the first “behold.” The next important one comes at the end of the chapter, where God pronounces his evaluation of those who worship idols. “Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind” (v. 29). It’s as though God says, “Look at them. Behold them. What is there to see? Nothing.” But then 42:1, “Behold my servant.” In comparison to lifeless idols, here is one who has the very life of God animating him: “whom I uphold … I have put my Spirit upon him.” Idols are empty “wind” (rûaḥ); the Servant is filled with God’s “Spirit” (rûaḥ). Idols can do nothing, but God can do anything. What a word of consolation God announces to a nation held captive by their enemies. The one that he is sending to rescue them has this very same limitless power. Their idols got them into this mess, the Spirit-empowered Servant will get them out.

Here’s a truth for us to behold: the power of Christ to save. It’s our sin that makes us miserable. It’s our sin that puts us far from God, or imprisons us. Jesus, though, is able to rescue. Therefore, we should not look for salvation from vain, empty nothings, or less-than-nothings. We are helpless, we need help. We are weak, we need strength. We are impotent, we need power. All of it and more is found in Christ. He announces at the start of his public ministry that the Spirit of God is upon him for this very purpose: to save you and me from the prison house of our own sin. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19).

This is what Jesus can do: set you at liberty. “Venture on him, venture wholly, let no other trust intrude: none but Jesus can do helpless sinners good.

The Commission of the Servant

In the context of Isaiah’s first Servant Song, the work that Jesus comes to do is summed up in the theme of justice. Three times in the opening half of the song we are told that this is the commission of the Servant: “He will bring forth justice to the nations … he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth” (vv. 1, 3–4).

The Hebrew concept of justice (mishpat) is complex and manifold, not entirely unlike the concept of peace (shalom). It has almost cosmic dimensions, referring to the right orderedness of society from every conceivable angle. The word has to do with God’s law, God’s rules, and the right execution and implementation of them. Justice is God’s desire for his world because it reflects who he is. God is a “Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth. It’s one of his defining qualities. He is fair, equitable. God’s justice is “that attribute whereby he disposeth all things according to the rule of equity,” said theologian George Swinnock in his classic work The Incomparableness of God. It’s the truth that God will give everyone what is their due. And this is what the Servant has been commissioned to bring about. To bring about a rightly ordered society. To bring about the reality of God’s law and how that comes to bear the whole world over. As one commentator writes, “The mission of the Servant is a gigantic one.” It still feels like something of an understatement! “It is nothing less than to put God’s plans for his people into full effect, and to make the truth about the Lord, Israel’s God, known everywhere.”

Again, consider how this message would have come to bear on a nation in captivity. God coming to set things right, to give everyone what they deserved. Israelites were guaranteed no such reality in a Babylonian court. The reality of sin in this world means injustice often reigns in the places where justice is meant to. Justice was hard to find for a Black man or woman in the Jim Crow south. Likewise, justice was absent from the infamous Volksgerichtshof, established by the Nazis to prosecute political offenses against the Third Reich.

The question for Isaiah’s audience, as it often is for us, is, Can God’s people find justice in this fallen world? The Servant will make it so: “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth.” One can imagine the people waiting for the coming of this Servant with the hope of the Narnians waiting for Aslan:

All will be made right, when Aslan comes in sight,
At the sound of his roar, sorrows will be no more

The Compassion of the Servant

But there’s something fascinating about how the Servant will execute this commission, and it’s through compassion. When you think of justice, gentleness isn’t usually a corollary. When you think of a judge, someone meek and mild likely doesn’t come to mind. The way God proposes to deal with the wrongs of this world, the way his Servant will establish his justice, is completely backwards to our natural instinct: “He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (vv. 2–3).

The Servant will usher in a new world order with little to no fanfare at all. He will almost go undetected. Jesus was known by his gentleness. He didn’t condemn those who were oppressed by sin and suffering; he healed them. This is how Matthew evaluates the ministry of Christ, by quoting these very verses from Isaiah 42—“And many followed him, and he healed them all and ordered them not to make him known.This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah…” (Matt. 12:15–21). The words of Old Testament scholar John N. Oswalt are too good not to share at this point:

…whereas all the other royal figures who have claimed to set up justice on the earth have done so through gleeful use of their power to smash and rebuild, this one will be radically different. He is so far from smashing the mighty that he will not even break off the reed that is bent over and cracked. Rather, he will support it and straighten it…. He will not even puff out the most dimly guttering lamp wick (smoldering wick). Rather, he will trim it and rest it more deeply in the oil.

This is good news because (if you didn’t figure it out already) you and I are the bruised reeds. We are those who are bruised by sin; we are the lights that are about to go out, unable to carry on in the face of sin and suffering—both our own, and that of those around us. But Jesus comes and deals gently with us. How can this be? We have said that God is a God of justice! Everyone must receive their due. What we deserve for our sin isn’t compassion, it’s condemnation! How is God being just by being so gentle with us? As Spurgeon once said, “Sin must be punished, or God must cease to be!

The answer is found, if you keep following this Servant through his ministry, at the very end: the cross. There we learn how Jesus could not break a bruised reed: he was broken for us instead. He doesn’t snuff out the faintly burning wick because his life would be extinguished in our place at Calvary. He is the bruised reed that was broken. He is the faintly burning wick that was quenched. This was God’s plan all along! What a kindness of the Lord to his wayward people.

And in this way, he faithfully brings forth justice. First it happens in our hearts—by making us right with God, by putting a new desire and a never-before-known ability to follow God’s rules, God’s law, God’s mishpat. We never would have guessed that this is how God’s justice comes about. “God’s answer to the oppressors of the world is not more oppression, nor is his answer to arrogance more arrogance; rather, in quietness, humility, and simplicity, he will take all of the evil into himself and return only grace.

Second, this justice will come in the whole world. When Christ comes again, then the justice of God will be on full display. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:31–32). “All will be made right, when Aslan comes to sight…”


What a Servant this is to behold. As Richard Sibbes writes in his classic, The Bruised Reed: “Christ was God’s servant in the greatest piece of service that ever was, a chosen and choice servant who did and suffered all by commission from the Father. In this we may see the sweet love of God to us, in that he counts the work of our salvation by Christ his greatest service, and in that he will put his only beloved Son to that service. He might well prefix it with ‘Behold’ to raise up our thoughts to the highest pitch of attention and admiration.

Therefore the opening call of the song is not just a call to attention, it’s a call to faith. It’s a call to believe this is God’s way of fixing the world—and not just the world, but even fixing you. This way of salvation—through a humble Servant’s sacrifice—is so unexpected that God repeatedly calls our attention to it in the Scriptures. Pilate crowned him with thorns and claimed, “Behold the man!” John the Baptist cried, “Behold, the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” Isaiah sings, “Behold my servant!” Here is the call to believe that this Servant offers something you can’t live without. Something you can’t afford to miss. Behold him, and in beholding, believe.


  • Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 102.

  • From Joseph Hart, “Come Ye Sinners, Poor and Needy,” 1759.

  • Westminster Shorter Catechism 4.

  • Cited in Terry Johnson, The Identity and Attributes of God, 189.

  • Webb, Isaiah, 162.

  • C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (Collins, 1968), 77.

  • Oswalt, Isaiah, 111.

  • Spurgeon, “A Message from God for Thee”

  • Oswalt, 111.

  • Sibbes, 1–2.

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Jonathan Landry Cruse
Jonathan Landry Cruse is the poetry editor of Modern Reformation, pastor of Community Presbyterian Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and author of The Character of Christ and What Happens When We Worship. He is also a hymn writer whose works can be found at
Friday, March 29th 2024

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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