"A Bruised Reed He Will Not Break"
The prophet Isaiah, perhaps more than any other Old Testament prophet, saw far and deeply into the future of God’s plan. The apostle John said that “Isaiah saw His (Jesus’) glory” (John 12.41). In typical fashion, what Isaiah saw had meaning on at least two levels, or could be understood in at least two ways.
The immediate question was the disposition of Israel before God. Isaiah predicted the destruction of Judah and the Babylonian captivity, but he also saw that the time would come when God would end the captivity and bring his people back to their land. This would be accomplished by someone whom God had chosen to do this work. As it turns out, this person was Cyrus, the great king of Persia. God would raise this man to his great position and, by his providence, arrange it so that Cyrus would conquer the enemy of God’s people (Babylon), set Israel free, and thus allow them to return to their land (and more importantly, to God). It is in this sense, then, that God calls Cyrus “My anointed one” (Isa 45.1) – which in the original language of this text means “My Messiah.” In Isaiah 44.28, God calls Cyrus “My shepherd,” since he will gather up Israel (like a shepherd gathers the flock of sheep).
However, Cyrus was a symbol, a type, or a model of an even greater person. Cyrus was the illustration, but someone else was the ultimate referent of God’s words. Like Cyrus, this other person would come into the world at God’s doing, conquer the enemy of God’s people and thus make it possible for them to return to God. Of course, this “other person” is none other than Jesus of Nazareth. He, ultimately, is God’s anointed one (Messiah), the good shepherd who gathers God’s people. If you can understand what Cyrus did for Israel, you can understand what Jesus has done for God’s new people.
Now the idea of conquering immediately suggests images of warfare, violence, death, destruction, inflicting pain and suffering on the enemy, and brute force. Interestingly, God said in Isaiah 42 that the coming conqueror would not be this kind of person, nor would his conquest be accomplished in the usual way (through violence, brute force, etc.). No, God describes him like this: “He will not cry out or raise his voice, nor make his voice heard in the street. A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not extinguish” (Isa 42.2-3). He does not come with a loud voice, shouting orders and demands, or making noise. He does not call attention to himself or make himself overly conspicuous. Even more surprising, he is not destructive. A simple reed (like a blade of grass) that has been damaged and just as well should be cut down and destroyed – he will not touch it. When a lamp goes out and the wick sits there smoldering, not putting out light any more but not quite “dead,” the natural reaction is to put it completely out (since it is not doing any good anyway). But this God-appointed conqueror does not do that. He harms nothing.
These are images of how he treats people. He does not come to destroy or inflict pain. He does not crush those who are already down and easy to put down. He does not view the weak as insignificant. Instead he is gentle, peaceful, not harmful or violent.
It is hard to say just how accurately this describes the character of Cyrus. We just don’t know that much about him. But we do know this: when he marched his army to Babylon in October of 539 BC, the city surrendered without a fight. The conquest of the capital city of the greatest empire the world had ever seen was attained in a very unusual way.
We do know, however, that Isaiah’s words describe Jesus perfectly. He was meek, gentle, and peaceable. He did not call attention to himself – a fact that the apostle Matthew said fulfilled Isa 42.3. When he was threatened and attacked, he did not threaten or hit back.
It is how God conquers that I wish us to think about. One author has put it this way: “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. That is power” (J. Oswalt).
Could God have shattered Babylon and turned it and all of its inhabitants into dust in an instant, with the snap of his fingers and the blast of his nostrils? Of course. God is infinitely more powerful than any earthly force. But although God could have met force with greater force, he instead met force with gentleness. Or, if you will, with love. This is exactly what was going on when Jesus died. He told Pilate that he could have fought – and won – a conflict on earthly terms if he wanted to, but instead he died to save others, and by this great display of selfless love he conquers the hearts of men.
Peter says that is the model for how we are to be in this world too – “Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously” (1 Pet 2.21-23). This way of being of God’s people is further reinforced when we understand that the servant whom God was describing in Isaiah 42 was a not just an individual, but a new people, a new Israel. The kind of power-in-gentleness which overcomes the world that we see in Jesus is what should be seen in all the people of God.
Conquering without fighting was not usual in the ancient world, but it sometimes happened. Here is a brief article on Alexander the Great to whom a few cities surrendered without a fight. A great difference between Alexander and Jesus, however, is that Alexander had already established a reputation for excellence in physical warfare. Jesus’ kingdom conquers without it.