“In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him.”Isaiah 36:5-6
Through the Bible: Isaiah 35-36
Sennacherib’s taunt of Hezekiah was meant to accomplish two things: demoralize Judah, and mock Egypt, one of Assyria’s recent military victories. The image he paints is powerful: Assyria has broken Egypt as easily as one breaks a bamboo shoot. And anyone who counts on a splintered reed as a crutch will only injure himself further. Moreover, anyone foolish enough to put their weight on a splintered staff will end up with splinters in his palm.
The arrogant king of Assyria couldn’t know how his taunts were reinforcing what God had already spoken to Hezekiah through the prophet Isaiah (see Isaiah 30:2, 6, 7 and Isaiah 31:1-3). God could not have put it more bluntly:
Egypt's help is completely worthless; therefore I call her: Rahab Who Just Sits. (Isaiah 30:7, CSB)
It wasn’t just that Egypt couldn’t help because they were weak. Egypt couldn’t help because they were also under divine judgment (see Isaiah 19:1-15, 20:3-6). They weren’t just a splintered reed because Sennacherib said so. God said so, too. So Assyria’s taunt was God’s warning: Lean on Egypt and you’re going to pierce your hand.
The word “reed” (Hebrew qaneh) is used twenty-nine times in twenty-one verses in the Old Testament. Ten of those describe the measuring reed Ezekiel was given to measure the temple. Interestingly, of the eleven remaining verses, seven of them have something to do with Egypt. With one very notable exception: Isaiah, writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, writes this about the coming Messiah in chapter 42:
42 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,Isaiah 42:1-3
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
If there is any doubt this is a prophecy about Jesus, that doubt is erased by St, Matthew, who applied this verse to Jesus when he was writing about how Jesus healed everyone who followed him (see Matthew 12:18-21). But I believe this prophecy “works” on at least two levels. One, it is a prophecy that God will not completely wipe Egypt off the map. Remember, “reed” most often referred to something about Egypt in the Old Testament. So for God to promise that His chosen servant would “not break” a “bruised reed,” the inference is that Egypt may be down, but she is never out. The fact that there is still a distinct Egyptian culture three thousand years later is proof that God never allowed her to be completely broken.
But the second layer of this prophecy is much more personal, much more intimate, and therefore much more relevant to us today. Matthew considered the sick, lame and demon-possessed people who followed Jesus as bruised reeds. And he notes that Jesus “healed them all.” There wasn’t a single of those splintered, bruised, and broken reeds that Jesus broke further by shame and humiliation. None of those smoldering wicks that he snuffed out completely. Jesus healed, but never in a way that took away a hurting person’s dignity.
I am sure that Sennacherib did not intend for his taunt to lay the groundwork for such an intimate portrait of the Messiah, but here it is: We are all, every one of us, like Egypt. We have all disappointed people that were counting on us. We have all, through deliberate action or accidental apathy, hurt people that were depending on us. We are all splintered and bruised reeds placed in the hands of Jesus. However, in His hands, we don’t stay splintered. Our bruises are healed. We are restored. When we are being held by Jesus, we don’t have to worry about piercing the hands of the One who holds us.
Because they have already been pierced for us.