“A bruised reed He will not break, And smoking flax He will not quench” (Matthew 12:20, NKJV). As the NIV renders it, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” Matthew here is quoting a prophecy from Isaiah 42 that pointed to the actions and demeanor of the coming Messiah, 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. The “smoking flax” may be about to lose its fire altogether, but it can still be reignited.
The “smoking flax” is a reference to the wick of a lamp. The lamps of ancient times were made of clay and filled with olive oil; the wick for such a lamp was a few strands of flax fiber or twisted cotton thread. The flaxen wick was a quick burner and hard to keep lit. The Greek word translated “flax” in Matthew 12:20 is linon, related to our English word linen. The ESV and other versions translate the word as “wick,” and the NLT translates it as “candle.”
To better understand the statement that Jesus would not quench the smoking flax in Matthew 12:20, it is helpful to go back to the original prophecy.
Starting in Isaiah 39:5–7, the prophet Isaiah tells King Hezekiah that Judah is going to be taken captive by the Babylonians: “The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
This dire news undoubtedly brought fear into the hearts of the people of Judah. But, following that pronouncement, God provides His assurance that the people of Israel would receive His help. Ultimately, this help was going to come by way of the Messiah. Isaiah 40 and 41 contain some great messianic prophecies. God makes the point that, although He was bringing judgment against Israel for her sins, He still loved His people and had a plan for their redemption.
In Isaiah 42:1–4, we find another prophecy:
“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.”
Matthew points to the fulfillment of this passage. God had promised to bring comfort and help to Israel, and He did it through His only begotten Son, Jesus. Though God certainly had a plan for Israel in regard to their captivity in Babylon, the redemption that Isaiah spoke of was primarily spiritual rather than physical. All of Israel was under the curse of sin, and Jesus came to redeem them from sin (see Luke 5:31–32).
In Matthew 12, Jesus heals a man with a shriveled hand and later heals all who were ill among the multitude that followed Him. Those whom He healed were the “bruised reed” and the “smoking flax” of verse 20. The prophecy was that Jesus would not extinguish the struggling flame of those who needed Him. In His grace and mercy, He would not snuff out the dying embers of faith He encountered; rather, He was intent on fanning those flames to burn brightly for Him.
A smoking, smoldering wick is in a precarious position. It is weak; the embers are about to lose whatever heat and light they had and be darkened forever. There are many people in a similar state—they have been wounded emotionally, spiritually, or physically. They are weak and about to lose all hope. But then God steps in. The prophecy that Jesus fulfilled is that the smoking flax He would not quench. It’s a prophecy that speaks of Christ’s compassionate care for the frail, demoralized, and exploited.
The sinful woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7 was a “smoking flax,” and Jesus defended her presence and forgave her sin. The widow of Nain was a “smoking flax” as she walked in the funeral procession for her only son, but Jesus restored her son’s life and turned her grief into joy. The man with the demon-possessed boy was a “smoking flax” when he cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24, ESV), and Jesus gave him the faith he requested and released his son from bondage. The paralyzed man lying helplessly by the Pool of Bethesda was a “smoking flax” in John 5, and Jesus changed his life forever. Over and over in the gospels, we see Jesus caring for the “smoking flax” of the world.
Those who have been saved by faith in Christ will share Jesus’ heart in seeking out the weak and trembling and imparting the love of God to them. Just as Jesus did not quench the smoking flax, believers will fan the flames of flickering faith in those who struggle. In doing so, believers can likewise “in faithfulness . . . bring forth justice” as Isaiah prophesied so long ago.