Reeds, including papyrus or bulrushes, grew along the banks of the Nile and in other marshy areas. They were often ten to twenty feet tall and sometimes as much as three inches in diameter. They were quite handy, being used for food; sweeteners; fires; medicines; paper; paint brushes; fishing spears, lines, and poles (Job 41:2). Papyrus scrolls were edible and possibly sweet (Ezek 3:1-3; Rev 10:8-10). Demosthenes, preferring death to arrest, bit into a reed quill containing poison (Plut. 41.29). Reeds were used as measuring devices which equaled six cubits or approximately twelve feet each (Ezek 40:3-8; 41:8; 42:16-19; 45:1; Rev 11:1; 21:15-16). Egyptians and Ethiopians were famous for their reed boats (Isa 18:2). As an infant, Moses was placed in an "ark of bulrushes" by his mother and set upon the Nile (Exo 2:3-5).
The sound of a reed pipe is often considered the voice of a soul pining for God or a lost love. Ukranian folk superstition claims that pipes made from the reeds of a drowned man's grave will sing out the name of his murderer. According to Greco-Roman mythology, the nymph Syrinx, fleeing from the lustful clutches of Pan, asked the river nymphs to hide her. The result -- they turned her into a bed of reeds from which Pan made his pipes.
Reeds proved themselves an unwanted voice to the mythical King Midas. At a contest between the gods, he judged Pan to be the better musician and the slighted Apollo turned his royal ears into those of an ass. By wearing a turban, Midas managed to hide his ears from everyone except his barber whom he threatened with death if word got out. Unable to contain his secret, the barber dug a hole and whispered his gossip to the earth. Reeds grew over the hole and whenever the wind blew, the rustling of the reeds broadcast the king's secret (Met. 11.18f).
Reeds were often endowed with cleansing or purifying properties. People might purify or protect themselves with reed-smoke or by walking through reed arches or sitting in reed circles or upon reed mats. Reed ropes were used to tie up or block the way of evil spirits. Like the spear, the reed is sometimes considered an Axis Mundi or world axis which can be used to join or travel between the planes of Heaven, earth, and Hades.
Tall green reeds are associated with water, fertility, abundance, wealth, and rebirth. During the Millennial kingdom reeds shall spring forth upon land which was formerly dry and barren, demonstrating the removal of the curse of the ground (Isa 35:7). Bildad argued that as reeds cannot "flourish without water" neither can humans thrive without God (Job 8:11-13). In Christian symbolism reeds represent baptism and the righteous ones thriving upon the rivers of God. Fittingly, John the Baptist is often pictured carrying a small reed cross.
Because they are easily blown flat by the wind, reeds are symbolic of weakness and fickleness (1 Ki 14:15; 2 Ki 18:21; Is 36:6; 42:3; Ezek 29:6; Mt 11:7; 12:2). Many times the Bible alludes to the unreliability of Egypt as an ally by calling this country a "staff of broken reed" which pierces the hand of all who lean upon it (2 Ki 18:21; Isa 36:6; Ezek 29:6). This allegory was made more apt by the fact that, in the hieroglyphics of the land, the king of Upper Egypt was represented by a bent reed. Because of their unfaithfulness to Israel, Isaiah predicted famine caused by the low levels of the Nile for Egypt by saying that "the reeds and rushes will wither" (Isa 19:6-7). The "beasts of the reeds" meaning crocodiles and hippopotamuses is another symbolic way of saying "Egypt" whose emblems these creatures were (Psa 68:30). The mysterious behemoth also enjoyed life in the marshy areas among the reeds (Job 40:21).
Because reeds bent with every gust of the wind, the Lord, referring to John the Baptist, asked the crowds, "What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind?" (Mt 11:7-10; Lk 7:24-26). He was pointing out the constancy of John's message. John's followers knew that his testimony did not change to please any audience no matter how powerful.
Although God threatened to shake Israel like a reed until she was uprooted from the land for her idolatry, His gentle Messiah would not break a bruised reed (1 Ki 14:15; Isa 42:3; Mt 12:20). He would have mercy on the broken and the weak. Bruised reeds were also symbolic of those weak in faith or virtue.
Even though reeds symbolize frailty, they may also represent the strength found in flexibility. Popular wisdom says that the green reed which bends in the wind is stronger than the mighty oak which breaks in a storm. Dried reeds, albeit hollow, may be as hard as wood.
The Roman soldiers gave Jesus a reed for a scepter during the Mocking of Christ after His scourging. It was as hard as wood and probably originally meant to be used as a cane to flog disobedient soldiers. They also put upon Him a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns. Then they spat at the Savior and mockingly worshiped Him. They took the reed from His hand and struck Him with it, beating the thorns of His crown into His head (Mt 27:29-30; Mk 15:19). Some pictures show Pilate presenting Jesus to the Jewish mob in this shameful attire with His reed scepter saying, "Behold the Man" or "Ecce Homo."
The scepter is a symbol of royalty, power, fertility, and authority closely related to the magic wand, shepherd's staff, axis mundi, club, phallus, and thunderbolt. It denotes power conferred from on high - especially the power to rule and to judge. The color, shape, and substance of each scepter enriches its symbolism. Pharaoh's scepter bore the likeness of the evil Set to remind would-be enemies that this ruler was merciless in his punishment of disobedience. Scepters bearing the shape of a fleur-de-lis represent purity and divine or intellectual light. The returning Christ will rule the nations with a rod or scepter of iron as an emblem of His strength and the stern discipline He will visit upon the wicked (Psa 2:9; Rev 2:27; 12:5; 19:15). God breaks the scepters of the wicked, for a broken scepter is symbolic of the loss of a kingdom or power either through war or abdication (Isa 14:5).
Scepters are attributes of royal saints, Greco-Roman deities, archangels, judges, heralds, God the Father and His Son the King of Heaven and Earth. They were sometimes used as weapons to strike those who offended gods or kings with their insolence. Esther fasted for three days before approaching her royal husband's throne, for it was well known that if he did not hold out his golden scepter of welcome towards his visitors they would be slain (Est 4:11; 5:2; 8:4). The scepter of St. Louis of Toulouse is usually pictured lying at his feet as a reminder that he renounced his throne in order to join the Order of St. Francis. In early paintings of the Annunciation, Gabriel carried a scepter indicating his royalty and his authority as a messenger of God. Later this instrument was replaced with a lily in honor of the virginity of Mary.
Scepters were often used as symbols for rulers. The Bible disdainfully refers to various kings as "the one who holds the scepter" (Amos 1:5-8). The Lord's scepter is a "scepter of righteousness" while the rule of foreigners is called "the scepter of wickedness" (Psa 45:6; 125:3; Heb 1:8). Departing scepters indicate that a country or royal line has lost its ability to rule itself or others (Zec 10:11). When Balaam was hired to curse Israel in the Wilderness, he instead predicted that the scepter would never "depart from Judah" for Christ, born of the tribe of Judah, would be an everlasting king (Num 24:17; Gen 49:10). When the last Davidic king was taken in chains to Babylon, the Lord compared Jerusalem to a fruitful vine which grew many strong branches for the making of royal scepters but was now plucked up in fury for the fire of the righteous scepter (Jesus) growing among her branches had burned up her wicked fruit (Ezek 19:9-14).
In addition to the reed scepter, a reed with a sponge is a symbol of the Passion. This second reed was a hyssop stalk to which was attached a sponge soaked with vinegar or sour wine. This was offered to Christ on the Cross to alleviate His thirst (Mt 27:48; Mk 15:36; John 19:28-29) However, many people believe that Christ thirsted for sinners rather than liquids.
All scripture quotes are from the NKJV Bible unless otherwise indicated.
© 1998 by Suzetta Tucker
To cite this page:
Tucker, Suzetta. "The Weapons of Christ - Reed Scepter." ChristStory Christian Bestiary. 1998. http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/legend01/reed.htm ().