by James W. Alexander
The compassion of Christ to the weak,
The world is deceived by the glare of 'seeming greatness'; but those things are not always the best, which make the most violent impression. The common sun and air, the dews and rains of heaven, the fertilizing river, and the silent growth of fruits and harvests, which are the benignant influences of our world, are less awakening and vehement than the storm, the volcano, and the earthquake. The work of destruction is often more startling than the progress of merciful and happy benevolence. It is much the same in the moral world. The welfare of society is promoted by a succession of quiet acts, scarcely heeded as they pass, and often unseen, while the murderous deeds of warfare and outrage are loud and sudden. It is too much the case, that we fall into the same error with regard to spiritual character and the interior life of religion. We set great value on the outbreak of passionate feeling, or the acts which inflame the multitude, while we account but little of ten thousand gentle thoughts, words, motions, and habits, by which God is honored, and the soul is carried forward toward the heavenly state.
Yet when we imagine the condition of ransomed spirits, we picture to ourselves a world of peculiar serenity and repose, where no paroxysms break the equable flow, and where the very ecstasy of love and praise is a constant, uninterrupted, and balanced glory. So we judge of the blessed angels; and so we hope for ourselves, when we anticipate perfect holiness. Rest and Peace are the names of such a paradise. That we form such conceptions, is a token that in our sober hours we set a superior value on those religious states which are permanent and unobtrusive.
The same thing appears in the only model we possess of human excellence. In the character of the Lord Jesus Christ there is nothing of spasmodic and wild action. The greater portion of his life was spent in retirement. The hills and valleys of Galilee, and the borders of the lake of Galilee, beheld the silent loveliness and enrapt devotion of the Son of Mary. His precursor and kinsman after the flesh, as he uttered the voice of Elijah in the wastes of Judah, seems never to have had a personal knowledge of him whom he proclaimed. And even when these two great personages met at the waters of Jordan, though the voice from heaven vouched the sonship of Jesus, the multitude knew him not. He is hurried away by the Spirit into the wilderness, in order to conflict with Satan; he dwells among the wild beasts (Mark 1:13), and is ministered to by angels. These are long and secret preparations for a kingdom which comes not by observation. When John points him out, he expressly adds, "There stands one among you whom you know not." And when again he points him out, as the great propitiation, the Lamb of God, not the thousands of Israel—but only two Galileans, follow in his way. When the third convert, Philip of Bethsaida, makes known his discovery to his guileless friend, Nathaniel answers—"Can there any good thing come out of Nazareth?" What may have been the feelings of his near friends we know not. At the entertainment at Cana, where, by the "beginning of miracles," he "manifested forth his glory," we are informed of the unguarded zeal with which the blessed Virgin would have drawn him out to a premature development of his majesty. But his hour was not yet come. And after this sudden and transient flash of his divinity, he went back again into the shades of home—"He went down to Capernaum, he, and his mother, and his brethren, and his disciples." John 2:12.
By all this we are reminded of God's method of preparing for great actions. Moses was forty years in the tomb-like palaces of Egypt; despising their treasures—but treasuring up their learning; and then forty years more in the desert of Midian, before he was commissioned for his great work.
Even after the public manifestation of Christ, there is a singular reserve as to fuller disclosure of his greatness. His most explicit revelations are made in private and to humble individuals, as to the woman of Samaria, and the man that was born blind; and even his miracles were left to work their principal effect, as evidence, when he should be risen from the dead. Now and then, indeed, he breaks forth into signal demonstrations of authority, as when he scourges out the profaners of the temple, and feeds the multitudes; but more usually there is no proclamation of his greatness. He calls the humblest men, one by one, or in pairs, from fishing-boats and money-tables. After transcendent miracles, he rises before dawn, goes into a solitary place, and prays. "All men seek for you;" but he goes at once to preach from town to town, notwithstanding their importunities. Matt. 8:17. He heals a leper; but it is with the injunction, "See that you say nothing unto any man;" and when the sensation through the countryside brings crowds around him, it is expressly said, "Jesus could no more openly enter into the city—but he went out to desert places, and he withdrew himself into the wilderness and prayed, and they came to him from every quarter." Secrecy and devotion are the beloved retreat of holy minds. Humility and contemplation and lamenting love, all seek the shade, where, like the turtle dove, they grieve and are unseen.
Though our Lord must have come into contact with a very large portion of the inhabitants of Palestine, he retreated from public show, and the acclamations of the mass. "I receive not honor from men." He did not covet the ostentatious conflict of the foolhardy martyr of fanaticism. When he knew of conspiracy, "he withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea"—that beautiful sea, which is ever since consecrated in the recollections of believers. "Great multitudes followed him, from Galilee, and from Judea, and from Jerusalem, and from Idumea, and from beyond Jordan—and those from Tyre and Sidon, a great multitude, when they had heard what things he did, came unto him. And he spoke to his disciples, that a small ship should wait on him, because of the multitude, lest they should throng him. For he had healed many; insomuch that they rushed upon him to touch him, as many as had plagues; and he healed them all"—as well those who cast themselves upon him in the frenzy of agonizing importunity and headlong craving, as those who besought him at a distance, with the homage of an awe which feared to profane the hem of his garment—he healed them all. And unclean spirits, when they saw him, fell down before him, and cried, saying, You are the Son of God! and he charged them that they should not make him known."
Not that his mighty works could remain absolutely private, or that he desired them to be buried in oblivion. This had been to defeat the very end of his mission. The intention of the miracles was to attest his divine mission. But from various passages we learn that the grand revelation of the body of evidence was postponed until a critical point in his mediatorial history—the resurrection from the dead. This, as it was in itself the visible seal of Heaven on his teaching, was that which brought to recollection, and so to public view, the tide of beneficent and supernatural wonders which had been flowing together for several years, as so many streams, to form a torrent of evidence, which at the appointed time should burst forth with irresistible conviction. By the sea of Galilee, however, he chose to repress the untimely fame, and to complete the quiet lowliness of his humiliation; for we read that it was agreeable to the oracle of Isaiah, 42:1—"Behold my servant whom I have chosen; my beloved in whom my soul delights—I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall show judgment to the Gentiles. He shall not strive nor cry, neither shall any man hear his voice in the streets."
His entrance was with no flourish of heraldic trumpets; no kingly harbingers forewarned the multitude of the entrance of a king; no voice of thousands accompanied the progress of their deliverer; no clamor of contention broke from his lips, even in behalf of his down-trodden country. Rebellion found no countenance from his meek and holy presence. The Herodians, and such as refused tribute, heard him remand them to Caesar. In his very walks of love, as he went about doing good, while the largesses of his charity flowed to thousands, he fled from the thanks and praises of his beneficiaries, and stole away, again and again, from the captivated populace, to cast himself before his Father, in the cold recesses of the mountain or the woods. His voice was ascending to heaven in solitary intercession—it was not heard in the streets. "A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench."
There is here a transition of a natural and pleasing kind, from the gentleness of the Messiah's character to the feebleness and insignificance of his people. That feebleness and insignificance he will not despise or crush—but will uphold it as a means towards his victory. Though the King of Glory, at whose approach the everlasting gates are lifted up, he stoops to the lowest and most burdened. It is the same connection of ideas which occurs in that matchless invitation, "Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest—take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly, and you shall find rest for your souls." It is by reason of this meekness, this lowliness, this serene and retiring and silent compassion, that the shrinking, and the self-condemned, the fainting and the unprofitable, are emboldened to draw near. The encouragement might be less cheering if it had not been inscribed centuries before the advent, on the very scroll of his prophetic and regal commission, and if we had not heard it among the ancient titles of his Messiahship—"A bruised reed shall he not break, and smoking flax shall he not quench."
The reed is at best an ignoble growth in the vegetable world; having no rank among the sturdy trunks of the forest; rejoicing in no verdure of shady foliage, and scattering no flowers or fruit into the lap of toil. It may minister support, as the most slender staff, or solace a weary hour as the shepherd's pipe; but it can never be the weapon of war or the timber of architecture. Springing in fens and marshes, it is an image of weakness and poverty. Thus, "the Lord shall smite Israel as a reed shaken in the water," 1 Kings 14:15—a base, defenseless thing of nothing. The Egyptians, as a useless resort, are "a staff of reed to the house of Israel." Ez. 25:9. And John the Baptist, for his firmness and constancy, is contrasted with "a reed shaken of the wind." But a broken reed is something viler still. Of small value in its integrity, it is below notice when crushed. Who will look upon it, or pick its broken stem from the highway, or the water side? It can picture nothing better than the weakest and lowliest of all whom Christ relieves. Shall the bruised object be trampled down and left? The foot of pride might so deal with conscious wretchedness; but such is not the dealing of infinite Love—"He shall not break the bruised reed."
The prophet employs another and a kindred metaphor, drawn from the common lamps of the Hebrews, in which the humble wick was of nothing better than flax. The office of the lamp is to blaze and give light; but when instead of this it barely smokes, it is of all household objects one of the most useless, foul-smelling, and offensive; and we hasten to extinguish it. Not so the benignant Redeemer—he does not extinguish even that which flickers in the socket, and is ready to die out. The smoking flax he shall not quench. It is part of his Messiahship to spare the perishing and rejected, the outcast reed, the half-quenched lamp. Blessed be his name! his princely advent is accompanied with a proclamation fitted to "revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones." Is. 57:15.
From the whole imagery of that text and context, we derive the truth, that the Lord Jesus Christ in his princely work as Messiah, looks with forbearance and compassion on the weakest and most despised of his people. It is a topic not inappropriate to our series of consolations; for it is well known that humble, tempted, and desponding people are often ready to doubt their own welcome, and to deny themselves the blessings which constitute the portion. I mean therefore to inquire, who those characters are, designated by the bruised reed and the smoking flax.
And first, The WEAK are such. Their type is the reed, and the reed almost crushed. Such a one often comes to the sanctuary in the spirit of the Syrophenician, unable to claim anything, yet pleading with irrepressible desire, 'Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat of the crumbs from the Master's table.' The soul trembles, lest this debility of grace be the want of title, and almost hears the words—"Friend, how did you get in here—not having a wedding-garment?" Or can scarce lift up the eyes to the place of emblematic propitiation—but is ready to smite the bosom, crying, "God be merciful to me a sinner." Others may be pillars in God's house—but I am but a rush, a reed, a bruised reed; of little value to my neighbor—of no value to my Lord. I am feeble in knowledge. There is more in Scripture that is dark than light to my understanding. I am in doubts and perplexities. I am low in faith. The frames of high assurance which others enjoy, are not mine. Scarcely can I write myself among God's people. I am weak in purpose, and failing in resolution; weak in conflict, and often flying before the enemy; weak in fortitude, and sinking under my cares. The grasshopper is a burden. I faint in the day of adversity, and my strength is small. Others may think well of me—but I know myself better. My light is dim—not a lamp of the golden candlestick—not even a candle to give light to all in the house. So small is my wisdom, so dull my example, so hesitating and infrequent and fearful my words of grace, that I am no more than a dying wick, repulsive and useless.
These are not uncommon exercises; though they seem such to the subjects of them. Every Sabbath the doors of the sanctuary open to some of this class. They love God's house, and resort to God's altars, as the timid, affrighted sparrow to her nest. They dare not refuse Christ's dying invitation—while they dare as little claim the children's bread. And I ask particular attention to the statement—that these people are sometimes among those who make no public profession of faith.
They are deeply humbled at the knowledge of their own deficiencies, both in nature and grace; and never harbor a thought of seeking any advantage by their merits. Not for an instant do they fancy themselves rich, increased in goods, eminent saints, harmless people whom God will not condemn—not for an instant do they stand and thank God that they are better than the publican, or rehearse prayers, alms, and fasts. Not for an instant do they look on their house as made ready for the Master—"I am not worthy you should come under my roof." To take the tearful place of Mary, the sinful woman, at his feet—they would consider heaven. They cannot look at Sinai—they cannot look at the law—they cannot look at themselves—"Unclean! unclean!"—the cry of the leper, is their cry. They think not of lessening their sins; their best prayer is, "Pardon my iniquity, because it is great." They confess judgment, and have not a word to say why sentence should not pass to execution. In view of God's righteous demand, and their account, they are speechless in their insolvency, when rigorous Justice takes them by the throat, saying, Pay me what you owe!
Mark this. It is characteristic. It is critical. It distinguishes the broken spirit from the loose sinner who desires and attempts no holiness, and from the starched, complacent, moral, respectable, well-doing Pharisee, who feels no need. These are God's poor. Hearken to the voice of silver notes from the mount of the Beatitudes—"Blessed are (not the rich but) the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are (not the proud but) the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are (not the full and sated but) those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled."
Even through the courts of God's house there do stalk some, whose pride and spiritual self-esteem will scarcely be indebted for anything, even to Jehovah. "There is a generation that are pure in their own eyes, and yet are not washed from their filthiness! There is a generation, O how lofty are their eyes! and their eyelids are lifted up." Prov. 20:12, 13. There lived in the days of Christ, "certain people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others." They live in our day, and in our churches. But they are not bruised reeds, or smoking flax—and their hopes are not in this promise. The word which sounds here from the gospel, is a "word to him that is weary." God resists the proud and gives grace unto the humble. The sense of weakness, provided it be deplored and bewailed, is no disqualification for receiving free gifts. Grace is gratuity. "Salvation is of God." Heaven has no seats for those who attempt to earn eternal life. It is into the empty vessel, that the divine favor pours its fullness. It is to kindle the expiring lamps, that He who walks among the golden candlesticks comes into his tabernacles this day.
The figure of our text designates the SORROWFUL. I see their very image in the bruised reed, which has been rolled over by the wheel of pride. I see their very image in the smoking flax, which sobs away its strength and gives no light, because it has none. There is a philosophy of this world which keeps itself comfortably cool and calm in a land of misery, by a method of abstraction which makes no man's sorrows its own. It sees many a man lying half-dead by the wayside—but it must maintain its dignified equanimity—it passes by on the other side. Hear its lectures of worldly-wisdom—"You must not be so soft-hearted—repress your sympathies—they are childish—they are womanish. Admit a little pang for your own family, or your immediate circle—but do not lend an ear to every cry of distress."
Knock at no such door! Child of misfortune, seek not to melt that polished marble heart! Tempt not the sneer of such condescending selfishness. O, bruised reed, go to Christ! There, there is the heart which made every human ill its own. Go to the followers of Christ—"Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended and I burn not?" Go to those whose maxim is, "Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep." It is the spirit of Messiah. He came to exemplify and communicate it. While on his triumphal progress to judgment and victory, he beholds the downtrodden object in his way, stays his victorious wheels, descends from his car, takes the bruised reed, and cherishes and nourishes it into health and vigor. And where self-important man would extinguish the failing light, he approaches the flax which scarcely smokes, and breathes new life into the flame.
If the gospel were not a message to sufferers—to great sufferers, to sufferers the most solitary, neglected and abject—it would not be a message, my brethren, for us. If religion could not display its glories where there are great trials—among the aged, poor, infirm, sick, desponding, and disheartened, we might erase from the catalogue the larger part of Christ's friends. But to show that his religion was open to the wretched, and to show that for such it was a balm, the Redeemer of men took on him not merely human form—but human sorrows.
We sometimes take a glimpse of his humiliation. "He himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses." Behold the man! in pains, in sorrows, in degradations, in fears, in agonies—a man! bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh! Can he not feel? Can he not have a fellow-feeling? Did he not bear the same shrinking fibre and nerve that thrills with our anguish? Behold the man! He comes forth, wearing the purple robe and the crown of thorns—weary, languid, fainting, spit upon, betrayed, condemned, all bloody from Gethsemane and the human scourge—about to bear his cross, and to be nailed to it, to thirst, to be excruciated, to die! Behold him, you who are bruised. It pleased the Lord to bruise him; he was bruised for our iniquities—despised, rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief — stricken, smitten, afflicted, wounded—a slaughtered lamb travailing in woe—pouring out his soul in death! Surely he will not break the bruised reed. Though all men trample on it, yet will not he. He cannot—he does not. And none better know this than they who suffer. They can venture to cast their burden on him, who denied them not the endurance of their agony, when it was demanded by the law.
The scriptural figure has been seen to include the weak and the sorrowful. I add, thirdly and lastly, it includes the SINNER. If it did not, it would be all lost on us. Under the first head, the infirmity described was a sinful infirmity, and we consider moral deceptiveness and defects as a part of it. But the same depravity which we there viewed as weakness, we are here to view as sin. For this is the very stumbling-block of the troubled conscience, and so long as this lies across the way, there is no reaching the cross. In vain do I proclaim to the drooping culprit that Christ invites the weak and the sorrowing. Yes! I am indeed both; but I am more than weak, more than sorrowful. I am vile—behold I am vile! crimson and scarlet cover all my life. Iniquities prevail against me; one of a thousand would destroy me. The Master is, I know, compassionate—but he is holy. He will pity infirmity and wipe away tears; but sin is that which his soul hates. I am excluded, because I am a sinner.
Let me plead with this unbelieving one. Jesus, who appears as a consoler, has a message for you. You are a sinner—vastly worse than you have described or dreamed. This man receives sinners. Sin is the disease he came to cure. Will you go to the surgeon and hide your chief wound? Ah! you then deem it incurable! that is, you doubt the remedy. If you were better, you would apply for his touch. But what says he? Those who are whole need not a physician—but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous—but sinners. I am sent unto the lost sheep. To the Pharisaic mind this is amazing; for its maxim is, that grace must be purchased, that Christ receives us on conditions. For generations the Jewish clergy had been walling themselves out from the unclean; they would not eat with them, or speak to them, or touch them. Jesus tread down and broke through all these partitions, and there was a doctrine in his practice which perplexed and disgusted the Jewish religious leaders. "Why does your master eat with publicans and sinners?" "Behold a friend of publicans and sinners!" Did he repel them? No, he said to the righteous ones, "The publicans and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you." And the history adds, "the publicans and harlots believed him." Levi and Zaccheus and Mary embraced a gratuitous salvation.
The chief of sinners has part in the offer. It is worthy of all acceptance. Be not weary of the familiar truth; account it not as the "light food," the "manna" which the world rejects, while the "full soul loathes the honeycomb." Come, buy and eat, yes come, buy wine and milk, without money and without price. It is the echo between the Old Testament and the New, "Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool."
You are a professor, and have sinned in the church. It is so; it is dreadful; it is detestable; it is more black and damning than you think. You have broken vows; you have been unfruitful; you have hated your brother in your heart; you have denied your Lord. It is a bruise more serious than others—your crushing bruise. David felt it—Peter felt it. But he of whom we speak is Jesus; he shall save his people from their sins. He will not overlook the principal malady. The bruised reed shall he not break. He will not put out the expiring glimmer of your corrupt, offensive lamp; the smoking flax shall he not quench. If he came with healing for all diseases but one—this one—he would come in vain. Here is the hydra's head, and he strikes at it. Sin and sorrow came in together in Eden; sin and sorrow shall go out together at the Judgment. And during the interval, though they remain—though the sting is still sin—though there is a law in your members warring against the law of your mind—though it sometimes oppresses your living graces as a body of death—yet thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
The doctrine of this grace may be abused—the grace itself cannot be. The lamentations to which these truths are directed, proceed from those who cry out, as they writhe in the mighty coils of their serpentine enemy. Whether in the church, or out of it, if you detest that which is closest to you—your sin—if this bruise of the spirit is your daily pain; if you long as importunately to be cleansed of your leprosy as to be pronounced clean by the priest; if you see in Christ's body and blood deliverance as well as pardon; then, no matter how great your sense of sins, your help is at hand. You may have lain long in the porches of Bethesda, among the great multitude of "impotent folk." You may have witnessed repeated seasons, when the angel descended into the pool and troubled the water. You may have had no man to put you into the pool. While you have been making the effort, others may have stepped down before you into the cleansing pool. Yet this day there is one among you whom you know not. And as his benignant eye fastens on you, he says, "Will you be made whole?" "Take up your bed and walk!" The smoking flax is almost dead—but here is "the Light of the World."
It would indeed be a profanation beyond remedy if you should make the blood of Christ the encouragement to remain in sin; it would be turning the grace of God into licentiousness—it world be trampling on the crucified body of the Lord; if persevered in, it would be certain destruction. But it would be all this simply because it would be rejecting the offered salvation. The salvation is as truly from pollution as from guilt. The acceptance of it is not possible, except where sin is the burden from which the soul flies with abhorrence. The terms of the free gospel may be abused; they have been abused. But the danger does not lie in overrating the fullness, freeness, nearness, and accessibleness of the invitation; nor is it to be avoided by annexing legal conditions to the grant. No atrocity of licentious Antinomian presumption can render the gift less free, or Christ less compassionate. His immaculate holiness turns away, indeed, from the heaven-daring impiety of hypocritical professors, who resolve to venture on known sin, while they cry, "Lord, Lord," and plunge deeper in iniquity and guilt, because there is pardon for transgressors. From this, I say, the pure and righteous Savior turns away with infinite repugnance!
Nevertheless, his divine, unbounded love abides unchangeable; and no malignancy of the wicked can avail for a moment to quench his compassions, or stay the hand of his relief. Though your grief, therefore, be sin itself; though your bruised spirit sinks most under the recollection and consciousness of sin; yet, if your inmost soul abhors the plague, and cries to be delivered from it—the Messiah of our prophetic word will not reject you. He will not refuse to lift you up because your distress is one caused by the greatest of all evils. And, in the language of Davies on this text, the desponding soul should thus think—"Has God kindled the sacred flame in his heart in order to render him capable of the more exquisite pain? Will he exclude from his presence the poor creature that clings to him, and languishes for him? No! The flax that does but smoke with his love was never intended to be fuel for hell; but he will blow it up into a flame, and nourish it, until it mingles with the seraphic ardors in the region of perfect love." Weak, and sorrowful, and sinful though you be, you are come to behold One who gives strength, peace, and righteousness; who died, and yet lives who "was made sin for us," in the manner exhibited in previous pages—and who "of God is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification and redemption."