To those unfamiliar with prophetic scripture, the above has a comforting ring to it. Thus, this verse has been used as a poetic synopsis of the idea that God will show mercy and only judge a man so far.
Isa 42:3 (NIV) A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice...
Isa 42:3 (KJV) A bruised reed shall he not break, and the smoking flax shall he not quench: he shall bring forth judgment unto truth...If this is a verse on your refrigerator door or mirror, you may be shocked to apprehend its meaning. It is not as if God is not tenderhearted or full of compassion, it is just that this verse is saying rather the opposite. In some cases, God will not show mercy (Rom 9:15). In the ultimate case, we know that He will "bring forth judgment".
A "smoking flax" clearly represents judgment, as the scriptures listed later will show. Isaiah uses smoke/fire to convey God's anger/wrath in the same book (of Isaiah), as do most of the other prophets, as does Jesus. So to not have God's smoldering anger "snuffed out" is a very bad thing, perhaps the ultimate bad thing.
The "bruised reed" is a little more difficult to unravel, so we will start there--by letting scripture interpret scripture. Here is how the idiom of a bruised reed is used elsewhere in the Bible.
The "Bruised Reed" (Ratsats Qaneh)
2 Ki 18:21 (KJV) Now, behold, thou trustest upon the staff of this bruised reed, even upon Egypt, on which if a man lean, it will go into his hand, and pierce it: so is Pharaoh king of Egypt unto all that trust on him.And notice how Isaiah (original author of the verse in question) uses this unique phrase when referring to the same story...
2 Ki 18:21 (NIV) Look now, you are depending on Egypt, that splintered reed of a staff, which pierces a man's hand and wounds him if he leans on it! Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who depend on him.
Isa 36:6 (GLT) Behold, you trust on the staff of this broken reed, on Egypt, which if a man leans on it, it goes into his palm and pierces it; so is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.While these statements are made by an enemy, still the idiomatic use is clear: by not breaking, the reed pierces a man's hand. It would be the expected, good, "happy ending" were it to break. It does not. It does something rather nasty--even unthinkable. The reed skewers the hand that holds it.
These are the only other verses in the Bible that use the bruised reed metaphor directly. By these we can infer that the "bruised reed" is a type of confidence that: "we are in control of the props we wield because they appear so bruised and weak and thus could be snapped at any time of our choosing." The scandal of the "bruised reed" not breaking is that such a simple, seemingly undangerous thing might actually impale the hand that thinks it is in mastery.
It does not break. Instead, it pierces through.
The "Smoldering Wick" (Keheh Pishtah)
The "smoking flax" not being quenched clearly means that God will not show mercy, that He will not turn back the fire of His wrath.
Eze 20:47-49 (NIV) "... 'Hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to set fire to you, and it will consume all your trees, both green and dry. The blazing flame will not be quenched, and every face from south to north will be scorched by it. Everyone will see that I the Lord have kindled it; it will not be quenched.'" Then I said, "Ah, Sovereign Lord! They are saying of me, 'Isn't he just telling parables?'"Fire in prophetic writing is a type of God's judgment. Always in the past, this judgment was meted, partial. But shall we presume it will always be so? Do we not know, in fact, that ultimately justice will be brought forth in truth... when God does not intervene to snuff out the kindling fire of His wrath? To not snuff out the smoldering wick will mean that the sparks will ignite into the raging fire of the end, the final judgment.
Notice how Isaiah, and others, use the image of fire, wicks, and snuffing out or not:
Isa 34:8-10 (NIV) For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion's cause. Edom's streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night and day; its smoke will rise for ever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again.There is more, of course, including the New Testament use of this very idiom as a type of eternal hell, where "the fire is not quenched." (Mark 9:46) Consistently used throughout the bible, this specific metaphor points to a time when the fiery wrath of God will not be quenched, and the elements will burn up in the fire of the day of the Lord. Thus, this verse describes the fearful and inevitable prospect of God not holding back his wrath. This time, He lets it burn.
Isa 66:24 (NIV) "And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched..."
Isa 1:31 (NIV) "The mighty man will become tinder and his work a spark; both will burn together, with no one to quench the fire."
Isa 30:33b-31:2 (NAS) "He has made it deep and large, a pyre of fire with plenty of wood; the breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone, sets it afire. Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help... But they do not look to the Holy One of Israel, nor seek the Lord! Yet He also is wise and will bring disaster and does not retract His words."...
Jer 4:4b-5 (NIV) "... my wrath will break out and burn like fire because of the evil you have done--burn with no one to quench it. Announce in Judah and proclaim in Jerusalem and say: 'Sound the trumpet throughout the land!' Cry aloud and say: 'Gather together! Let us flee to the fortified cities!'"
Amos 5:4-6 (NIV) This is what the Lord says to the house of Israel: "Seek me and live; do not seek Bethel, do not go to Gilgal, do not journey to Beersheba... Seek the Lord and live, or he will sweep through the house of Joseph like a fire; it will devour, and Bethel will have no one to quench it. "
Now, let's read the verse again, noting the conclusion.
Isa 42:3-4 (NIV) A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering 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.Here are a few more verses along these lines.
Joel 2:1-3 (NIV) Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy hill. Let all who live in the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming. It is close at hand--a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness. Like dawn spreading across the mountains a large and mighty army comes, such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come. Before them fire devours, behind them a flame blazes...
Isa 10:3-5 (NIV) "What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches? Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised. Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!"
2 Pet 3:9-14 (NIV) The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.
Zeph 1:14,2:3 (NIV) "The great day of the Lord is near--near and coming quickly. Listen! The cry on the day of the Lord will be bitter, the shouting of the warrior there. That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness, a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring distress on the people and they will walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like filth. Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord's wrath. In the fire of his jealousy the whole world will be consumed, for he will make a sudden end of all who live in the earth... Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands. Seek righteousness, seek humility; perhaps you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord's anger."
Luke 12:49 (NAS) [Jesus] "I have come to cast fire upon the earth; and how I wish it were already kindled!"