Question: "What does it mean that "a bruised reed He will not break" in Matthew 12:20?"
Answer: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out” (Matthew 12:20). When Matthew wrote these words, he was quoting a prophecy from Isaiah 42:1–4. This prophecy pointed to the actions and demeanor of the coming Messiah, now revealed as Jesus Christ. In the prophecy, the “bruised reed” and the “smoldering wick” refer to the spiritually, physically, or morally weak. A reed that is bruised may be damaged, but it is not irreparable. A “smoldering wick” may be about to lose its fire altogether, but it can still be reignited.
At the beginning of Matthew 12, we find the disciples walking through a grain field with Jesus, picking grain to sate their hunger. According to Deuteronomy 23:25, grain-picking was a lawful activity, but the Pharisees, always quick to condemn, questioned its legality because that day was the Sabbath. They accused the disciples of “harvesting” grain and therefore “laboring” on the Sabbath day.
Jesus explained that doing good on the Sabbath was acceptable and that there was something bigger going on here than simply observing a holy day (Matthew 12:6). He went on to explain that the Pharisees condemned the innocent due to misunderstanding the Scriptures, which said, “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (verse 7; cf. Hosea 6:6). While the Pharisees sought to judge those who did not suffer for piety, Jesus sought to grant mercy to all.
A little later, the Pharisees challenged Him by asking, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” (Matthew 12:10), and Jesus again made a case for mercy by healing a disfigured man right before their eyes (verses 11–13). Later still, Jesus “healed all who were ill” in a large crowd that was following Him (verse 15). But, rather than trumpet His healing ability far and wide, Jesus warned the crowd not to mention His miracles to anyone else (verse 16). Jesus’ instructions for secrecy here prompted Matthew to quote the ancient prophecy, bringing Isaiah’s words into new light with the revelation of the Messiah’s identity:
“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;
he will not falter or be discouraged
till he establishes justice on earth.
In his teaching the islands will put their hope” (Isaiah 42:1–4).
We expect most people with special abilities to run to the nearest spotlight, hire a promoter, or in some other way strive for as much fame as possible. But Jesus was not like that. In fulfillment of prophecy, He did not “shout” or raise a ruckus. He worked quietly, at times purposefully avoiding the public eye, to accomplish God’s will.
And then there is the bruised reed. To the world, a bruised reed is a worthless thing. It has no power, no stability, no purpose. It is good for nothing but to be cut down and discarded. So in the world there are many bruised people, individuals who have been wounded emotionally, spiritually, or physically. They are feeble, and to most of the world, they are dispensable. But not to God. The prophecy that Jesus fulfilled is that the bruised reed He would not break. It’s a prophecy that speaks of Christ’s tender, compassionate care for the weak and downtrodden.
The disfigured man whom Jesus met in Matthew 12 was a “bruised reed,” and Jesus gave him strength and cured his shriveled hand. The woman taken in adultery was a “bruised reed” in John 8, and Jesus saved her from stoning and forgave her sin. Jairus was a “bruised reed” as he mourned his daughter’s death, but Jesus strengthened his faith and raised his daughter from the dead. The woman with the issue of blood in Luke 8 was a “bruised reed,” and Jesus restored her to full health. The disciple Peter was a “bruised reed” after his denial of the Lord, but Jesus gently and lovingly renewed him to fellowship after the resurrection. Over and over in the gospels, we see Jesus caring for the “bruised reeds” of the world.
Jesus understands the bruised reed. He was “bruised for our iniquities” (Isaiah 53:5, NKJV). In other words, He was bruised on behalf of those bruised by sin. Those who come to Christ He will not despise. They have this promise from Jesus: “[God] has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted” (Isaiah 61:1).
You may be a “bruised reed” in some way today. You may be pressed down with the troubles of this world. You may be struggling with doubt and fear. You may be feeble and disheartened and ready to break. But know this: Jesus cares. He will have pity for the broken-hearted, compassion for the humble, affection for the penitent, and healing for the afflicted. Come to Him in faith, humbly trusting His strength, and find that He is gracious to all.