These are some insightful and nourishing words from English Puritan theologian Richard Sibbes (1577–1635). These paragraphs are taken from his devotional work “The Bruised Reed”, which is based on Isaiah 42:1-3.
In this section Sibbes shows the Christian as “a smoking flax” (a “faintly burning wick” in the ESV) — ablaze, able to produce light and heat, and yet at the same having a tendency to produce smoke. I think many of us can relate to this imagery. We are alive in Christ. Our hearts can burn for Christ and sometimes we can shine with his light and heat. Yet we can also be capable of the most horrendous sin, the darkest thoughts, desires and motives. We surely need Christ. His righteousness. And his tenderness in our weakness. Though we burn faintly and produce much smoke, he will not snuff us out but will fan us into flame and there will come a time when we are all flame and no smoke. Praise the Lord.
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
GRACE IS MINGLED WITH CORRUPTION
But grace is not only little, but mingled with corruption; therefore a Christian is said to be smoking flax. So we see that grace does not do away with corruption all at once, but some is left for believers to fight with. The purest actions of the purest men need Christ to perfume them; and this is his office. When we pray, we need to pray again for Christ to pardon the defects of our prayers. Consider some instances of this smoking flax:
Moses at the Red Sea, being in a great perplexity, and knowing not what to say, or which way to turn, groaned to God. No doubt this was a great conflict in him. In great distresses we know not what to pray, but the Spirit makes request with sighs that cannot be expressed (Rom. 8:26). Broken hearts can yield but broken prayers.
When David was before the king of Gath (1 Sam. 21:13) and disfigured himself in an uncomely manner, in that smoke there was some fire also. You may see what an excellent psalm he makes upon that occasion, Psalm 34, in which, on the basis of experience, he says, `The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart’ (Psa. 34:18). `I said in my haste, I am cut off from before thine eyes.’ There is smoke. `Nevertheless thou heardest the voice of my supplications’ (Psa. 31:22). There is fire. `Lord, save us: we perish’ (Matt. 8:25), cry the disciples. Here is smoke of infidelity, yet so much light of faith as stirred them up to pray to Christ. `Lord, I believe.’ There is light.
‘Help thou mine unbelief.’ There is smoke (Mark 9:24). Jonah cries, `I am cast out of thy sight.’ There is smoke. `Yet I will look again toward thy holy temple.’ There is light (Jon. 2:4).
`O wretched man that I am!’, says Paul, with a sense of his corruption. Yet he breaks out into thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 7:24).
`I sleep,’ says the church in the Song of Solomon, `but my heart waketh’ (Song of Sol. 5:2). In the seven churches, which for their light are called `seven golden candlesticks’ (Rev. 2 and 3), most of them had much smoke with their light.
The reason for this mixture is that we carry about us a double principle, grace and nature. The end of it is especially to preserve us from those two dangerous rocks which our natures are prone to dash upon, security and pride, and to force us to pitch our rest on justification, not sanctification, which, besides imperfection, has some stains. Our spiritual fire is like our ordinary fire here below, that is, mixed. Fire is most pure in its own element above; so shall all our graces be when we are where we would be, in heaven, which is our proper element.
From this mixture arises the fact that the people of God have so different judgments of themselves, looking sometimes at the work of grace, sometimes at the remainder of corruption, and when they look upon that, then they think they have no grace. Though they love Christ in his ordinances and children, yet they dare not claim so near acquaintance as to be his. Even as a candle in the socket sometimes shows its light, and sometimes the show of light is lost; so sometimes they are well persuaded of themselves, sometimes at a loss.