Book Review: The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes

by Jason Barker

Some time ago, I experienced a lengthy season of difficulty in life and ministry. I cannot recall the exact details of that time, but I was worn out and weary, nursing a series of wounds I sustained at the church where I served. Perhaps sensing the burden I carried, one of my staff members gave me a copy of Richard Sibbe’s The Bruised Reed, assuring me that the little book would give me some comfort and help make sense of life’s difficulties. It did, and since that time I’ve often returned to The Bruised Reed when I needed a reminder of God’s purpose for suffering and hardship and, ultimately, his faithfulness to heal the brokenhearted.

Originally written in 1630, The Bruised Reed is one of Sibbe’s most well-known and well-loved works. In it, Sibbe’s displays why he was often referred to as “the heavenly Doctor Sibbes” by his contemporaries – his warm, pastoral care is evident in each word.

The Bruised Reed

Richard Sibbes (1577-1635), one of the most influential figures in the Puritan movement during the earlier years of the seventeenth century, was renowned for the rich quality of his ministry. ‘The Bruised Reed’ shows why he was known among his contemporaries as ‘the sweet dropper’.

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Primarily an exposition of Isaiah 42:1-4, The Bruised Reed offers Christians a gentle reminder that God is a shepherd who takes care of the bruised and broken, using difficulty and hurt to shape them into better servants. Ultimately, we are reminded that the Savior does not overlook any opportunity to minister his grace to his people, who are always in need of it to one degree or another.

Key Points of the Book

  1. Bruising is necessary both before and after conversion: From our earliest days, we are taught to make good choices so we can avoid the inevitable pain that results from bad ones. It should come as no surprise that we innately view pain negatively and are discouraged when we experience it. Scripture describes pain differently, however, and Sibbe’s clarifies this point. One cannot be saved apart from the hardship that God uses to soften our hearts to Him, and, once saved, we cannot be motivated to grow in Christlikeness without the hardship that reminds us of our dependence upon the Lord.
  1. The corruption in our lives should serve to stifle our arrogance and remind us of our need for Jesus: Sibbes references the smoking flax from Isaiah, describing the small fire of grace present in salvation and the smoke of corruption that still exists in the redeemed heart. He points out it can be easy to see only one and not the other, both perspectives leaving us with an inaccurate view of ourselves. We must remember that God is at work in us even when we do not see it and that corruption still taints us even when we see God’s progress in us.
  1. Even though we are weak and flawed, we can still be useful to God in his work: Human weakness is part of the curse of sin, and we will not be rid of weaknesses until this life is over. As Sibbe’s notes, weaknesses do not break our covenant with God, do not disqualify us from mercy, and do not keep us from God’s service (58).

Powerful Quotes From the Book

  • “The bruised reed is a man that for the most part is in some misery, as those were that came to Christ for help, and by misery, he is brought to see sin as the cause of it, for, whatever pretenses sin makes, they come to an end when we are bruised and broken.” (3-4)
  • Physicians, though they put their patients to much pain, will not destroy nature, but raise it up by degrees. Surgeons will lance and cut, but not dismember. A mother who has a sick and self-willed child will not, therefore, cast it away. And shall there be more mercy in the stream than in the spring? Shall we think there is more mercy in ourselves than in God, who plants the affection of mercy in us?” (7)
  • “Christ chose those to preach mercy who had felt most mercy, as Peter and Paul, that they might be examples of what they taught . . . Christ came down from heaven and emptied himself of majesty in tender love to souls. Shall we not come down from our high conceits to do any poor soul good? Shall man be proud after God has been humble?” (27)
  • “Suffering brings discouragement, because of our impatience. ‘Alas!’ we lament, ‘I shall never get through such a trial.’ But if God brings us into the trial, he will be with us in the trial, and at length bring us out, more refined. We shall lose nothing but dross.” (54)
  • “This, then, we are always to expect, that wherever Christ comes there will be opposition. When Christ was born, all Jerusalem was troubled; so when Christ is born in any man, the soul is in an uproar, and all because the heart is unwilling to yield up itself to Christ to rule it.” (121)

Application in the Local Church

When I was a seminary student, one of my professors told us about a study which revealed that 50% of seminary graduates would leave ministry within five years of graduation. I doubted the truth of that statement at the time, but in the ensuing fifteen years, I have seen the numbers play out that way among my colleagues. In the stories that I have heard from them, pain, discouragement, betrayal, and loss of hope were the culprits that undermined their perseverance. My heart breaks for them, but I can understand the temptation to leave it all behind. Success and longevity in ministry are based in large part on our ability to endure hardship and lean into difficulty. When we trust God to work in us through all things, we will see him bring victory out of apparent defeat.

Citation: Sibbes, Richard. The Bruised Reed. Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1998. 128 pages.

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(DMin, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary) Jason is an experienced pastor and theological educator seeking to encourage and equip the next generation of church planters. Jason serves at Colorado Christian University and consults with a variety of church leadership organizations. He and his wife live in Southern California with their four children.

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