Review: Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed

ARCANE AND GERMANE BOOK REVIEWS #5

“After reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
(C.S. Lewis)


Christians do not sail above all the myriad challenges of life. We live our lives and carry out our ministries not apart from or even despite our trials; on the contrary, ‘in all these things we are more than conquerors.’ (Romans 8:37). For the power of Christ at work in us, is made perfect in weakness (2Cor 12:9). As Peter Adam recently put it: ‘God’s invincibility works through human vulnerability. Don’t pretend that you are not vulnerable, and don’t forget that God’s plan for his people through his Son is invincible.’

The Bruised Reed
Richard Sibbes
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The Bruised Reed
Richard Sibbes
Banner of Truth.

(Also freely available online as an ebook at https://www.monergism.com/bruised-reed-ebook)

Introducing Richard Sibbes (1577-1635)

One pastor who clearly understood the Christian paradox of invincibility and vulnerability, was the Church of England minister and Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes. Converted as a Cambridge University student, he later became the vicar of Holy Trinity Cambridge (where, a century or so later the great Charles Simeon would also serve). Nicknamed ‘The Heavenly Doctor Sibbes,’ and ‘The Sweet-Dropper,’ he was well known for his Christ-centred preaching which came combined with a profound and careful understanding of the human condition.

Nicknamed ‘The Heavenly Doctor Sibbes,’ and ‘The Sweet-Dropper,’ Sibbes was well known for his Christ-centred preaching and careful understanding of the human condition.

Jesus the Servant of the Lord

The title of Sibbes’ book is taken from these words from the prophet Isaiah:

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight.

I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations.

He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets.

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.

In faithfulness he will bring forth justice…‘

(Isaiah 42:1-3 cf. Matthew 12:15-21)

Jesus understood His ministry as the fulfilment of the promise of the Servant of the Lord in Isaiah (e.g. Matthew 12:15-21 cf. Luke 4:14-21)—both the one who would fulfill God’s plans and the meek and gentle one, who came not to be served but to serve. Jesus is the friend of sinners, welcoming those who like little children recognize their helplessness and their desperate need for God (e.g. Matthew 11:25-30; 19:11-15; Mark 2:13-17; 10:45 cf. 1Timothy 1:15-17).

The Sweet Love of the Triune God

Reflecting on the promise of God’s Servant in Isaiah, Sibbes begins by reminding us of the wonder of God’s ‘sweet love for us.’

See here, for our comfort, a sweet agreement of all three persons: the Father gives a commission to Christ; the Spirit furnishes and sanctifies to it, and Christ Himself executes the office of a Mediator…Christ was God’s chosen and choice servant who did and suffered all by commission from the Father…And what a comfort is this, that, seeing God’s love rests on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is well pleased with us, if we be in Christ.[1]

The chief goal of this book from beginning to end is to encourage believers to see themselves from the perspective of their union with Christ. In many different ways Sibbes is saying: ‘Look to Christ, and learn to see yourselves as God sees you in Him! This is the key to our perseverance through trials to the end (cf. Hebrews 12:1-3).’

Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, and in him God’s love, and build our faith safely on such a Saviour that is furnished with so high a commission.[2]   And this power is conveyed by faith, by which, after union with Christ in his estates both of humiliation and of exaltation, we see ourselves, not only dead with Christ, but risen and sitting together with him in heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6).[3]

Christ at length will fulfil his purpose in us, and faith rests assured of it, and this assurance is very operative, stirring us up to join with Christ in his purposes.[4]

The winds may toss the ship wherein Christ is, but not overturn it. The waves may dash against the rock, but they only break themselves against it.[5]

The Bruised Reed

When God reveals himself to us in Christ, he reveals our own nature to us as well.[6] Sibbes points out that those through whom God is at work are not ‘strong trees,’ but ‘bruised reeds,’ not raging furnaces but ‘smoldering wicks.’

This is such an one as our Saviour Christ terms ‘poor in Spirit’ (Matt 5:3), who see his wants, and also sees himself indebted to divine justice. He has no means of supply from himself or the creature, and thereupon mourns (Matt 5:4), and, upon hope of mercy from the promise…is stirred up to hunger and thirst after it (Matt 5:6).

Because of both our tendency to pride and despair, and to remind us that we are not self-sufficient but truly need God, this ‘bruising’ happens throughout the life of God’s people. When we experience struggles, we can be tempted to be too hard on our own failures and those of our brothers and sisters. We are prone to forget the reality of the grace of God towards us. But in actual fact when we share in Christ’s suffering, we show that we belong to Him and that God is at work in us by His Spirit.

There must be a conformity to our head, Christ, who ’was bruised for us’ (Isa 53:5) that we may know how much we are bound unto him.[7]

Sibbes may have had Job’s miserable comforters in mind when he wrote,

Ungodly spirits, ignorant of God’s ways in bringing his children to heaven, censure broken-hearted Christians as miserable persons, whereas God is doing a gracious, good work in them.’ (cf. Romans 8:28)[8]

Jesus Will Not Break You

Christ does not break the bruised reed, nor snuff the smoldering wick. When we struggle in our daily life, or in our ministry to others, it is helpful to remember that Jesus is not seeking to break us; but ultimately to heal us. Our heavenly Father loves us; and He is for us and not against us (Romans 8:31-39), and Jesus is far more patient with us than we are with ourselves and certainly with one another! Once again, Sibbes’ encouragement is to view ourselves wholly in relationship to God through His beloved Son:

Never fear to go to God, since we have such a Mediator with him, who is not only our friend but our brother and husband.[9] (cf. Hebrews 2:10-18; Eph 5:22-33)

If Christ be so merciful as not to break me, I will not break myself by despair, nor yield myself over to the roaring lion, Satan, to break me in pieces.[10]

Here we see the opposite dispositions in the holy nature of Christ and the impure nature of man. Man for a little smoke will quench the light. Christ, we see, ever cherishes even the least beginnings. How he bore with the many imperfections of the disciples![11]

Christ refuses none for weakness of parts, that none should be discouraged, but accepts none for greatness, that none should be lifted up with that which is of so little reckoning with God.’[12]

Believe Christ not Satan

Satan loves to promote the terrible twins of pride and despair in our lives. Both are dead ends—destroyers of love for God and neighbor; allies of self-love and self-regard. Depending on our temperament (tending to optimism or to pessimism), they will make us obsessed with our own needs and desires, and discouraged with how hard it is to truly satisfy them. They bend us in on ourselves and increasingly isolate us from those around us. God’s word to us in Christ is to keep listening to him, to believe his life-giving truth; and to keep in step with his Spirit at work in our lives.

Therefore if there be any bruised reed, let him not make an exception of himself, when Christ does not make an exception of him. ‘Come unto me, all you that labour and are heavy laden’ (Matt 11:28). Why should we not make use of so gracious a disposition? We are only poor for this reason, that we do not know our riches in Christ. In time of temptation, believe Christ rather than the devil. Believe truth from truth itself. Hearken not to a liar, an enemy, a murderer.[13]

Satan the Accuser, as he slanders Christ to us, slanders us to ourselves (cf. Job 1-2)…Cast yourself into the arms of Christ, and if you perish, perish there. If you do not, you are sure to perish. If mercy is to be found anywhere, it is there.[14]

Whatever may be wished for in an all-sufficient comforter is all to be found in Christ:

1. Authority from the Father. All power was given to him (Matt 28:18).

2. Strength in himself. His name is ‘The Mighty God’ (Isa 9:6).

3. Wisdom, and that from his own experience, how and when to help (Heb 2:18).

4. Willingness, as being bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh (Genesis 2:23; Eph 5:30).[15]

Through Conflict to Victory

Modern Western Culture is often ashamed and embarrassed about weakness and mortality. We idolise the strong, young beautiful things, and measure our own imperfections by the illusions of their air-brushed images. We worship celebrity, and crave acclaim for ourselves, but are nervous to face the world apart from the edited versions of our lives on social media. We insulate our lives in the vain hope that maybe we will be able to escape misfortune, minimise illness, and cheat death.
As Christians, we are not immune from these temptations. We too are attracted to the strong and the popular, We too are tempted to believe the lie that our weakness disqualifies a person from really being able to serve God.
But God is not like us! And His word is clear and unmistakable; and full of real comfort:

You turn men back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, O sons of men.”Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom
(Psalm 90:3, 12)

As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust…But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children.
(Psalm 103:13-14, 17)

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.
(2Cor 4:16-17)

Richard Sibbes’ pastoral insights are just as relevant to us now in the 21st Century, as they were for believers living in 17th Century England.

Richard Sibbes’ pastoral insights are just as relevant to us now in the 21st Century, as they were for believers living in 17th Century England.

Nothing is stronger than humility, which goes out of itself, or weaker than pride, which rests on its own foundation…Jesus says ‘without me, you can do nothing’ (John 15:5). He does not say, you can do a little, but nothing. Of ourselves, how easily we are overcome…we are as reeds shaken with every wind. We shake at the very noise of and thought of poverty, disgrace, or losses…How soon we are overcome by evil…’[16]

The victory lies neither in our own strength to get it, nor in our enemies’ strength to defeat it…Christ will maintain his own government in us and take our part against corruptions…’ [17]

Christ will not leave us till he has made us like himself, all glorious within and without, and presented as blameless before his Father (Jude 24).[18]

This is true for everyone who belongs to God through faith in Christ, and so it is true of Christ’s church as a whole. Jesus said, ‘I will build my church…and the gates of Hell will not overcome it.
(Matt 16:18)

Sibbes concludes his book with this strong encouragement.

Things seem to hang on a small and invisible thread. But our comfort is that Christ lives and reigns, and stands on Mount Zion in defense of those who stand for him (Revelation 14:1)…At this very time the delivery of his church and the ruin of his enemies are in progress. We see nothing in motion till Christ has done his work, and then we shall see that the Lord reigns.[19]


He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
(Revelation 22:20-21)


[1] Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2011 (1630)), pp.1-2.
[2] Ibid, p.2.
[3] Ibid, p.93.
[4] Ibid, pp.93-94.
[5] Ibid, p.94.
[6] Cf. John Calvin, Inst. I.i.3. ‘We must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God’s majesty.’
[7] Ibid, p.5
[8] Ibid, p.6
[9] Ibid, p.9
[10] Ibid, p.10
[11] Ibid, p.21
[12] Ibid, p.23
[13] Ibid, p.61.
[14] Ibid, pp. 64, 65.
[15] Ibid, p.66.
[16] Ibid, p.114
[17] Ibid, p.122
[18] Ibid, p.123
[19] Ibid, p.126.

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