Posted by: rcottrill | June 1, 2015

There Is a Balm in Gilead

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Words: Traditional Spiritual, source unknown
Music: source unknown

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: In 1907, brothers Frederick and John Work published a book called Folk Songs of the American Negro. Doing careful research, the Work brothers sought to preserve the traditional Spirituals of the earlier slave population, songs that had been passed on orally, and never written down.

Many of the slaves received Christian teaching, and embraced it. They identified with the Israelites in their years of bondage in Egypt. And they looked with faith and hope to the compassionate Saviour who welcomed and forgave sinners. One of their songs was based on the words of Jeremiah 8:22. But, whereas the prophet framed his words as a sorrowful and almost despairing question, the Spiritual expresses an affirming positive.

As with many of these songs, it underwent changes and additions over the years. Some include a third stanza, though I can’t vouch for its authenticity. It says:

Don’t ever feel discouraged,
‘Cause Jesus is your Friend,
And if you lack for knowledge,
He’ll never fail to lend.

The commonly accepted version of the song has only two stanzas. (Note that the refrain comes first in this format.) It begins:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.

CH-1) Some times I feel discouraged,
And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again.

When I was a boy, there was an over-the-counter salve available called Grey’s Balm. On the label, in tiny print, were listed dozens of maladies for which it was said to be useful. Even if some of these were a big stretch, our family found many instances when the product promoted comfort and healing. We always had a jar of it in the medicine cabinet.

I haven’t seen it for sale in years, so likely it’s not being made any more. There are, however, other products in use today that have a similar purpose. For such things as common cuts and scraps, for minor burns, and for insect stings, we often look for some kind of ointment that will bring comfort, prevent infection, and encourage healing.

In Bible times, the territory of Gilead, along the eastern edge of the Jordan River, produced an aromatic ointment that was in great demand. Made of resin from the storax tree (possibly a kind of balsam), it became one of Judah’s primary exports. It’s mentioned early on. Remember how Joseph’s hateful brothers plotted to sell him into slavery. They spotted some merchants coming “from Gilead with their camels, bearing…balm…on their way…down to Egypt” (Gen. 37:25). It was that caravan that carried Joseph into Egyptian bondage.

Later, the prophet Jeremiah mentions Gilead’s healing balm a couple of times. In Jeremiah 8:22 the reference is metaphorical. The prophet asks:

“Is there no balm in Gilead, is there no physician there [i.e. to prescribe and apply it]? Why then is there no recovery for the health of the daughter of my people?”

In other words, if a remedy is available, how come my people are still sick? It’s a powerful image that Jeremiah is using of their spiritual condition. They are sin-sick, and not using the means of restoration God has supplied.

Once in awhile, in the Bible, disease serves as a picture of something deeper. A sickness of soul, caused by sin. When the Jewish leaders criticized the Lord Jesus for “eating with tax collectors and sinners,” He responded, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” (Mk. 2:16, 17). There was stinging irony in that. The scribes and Pharisees were sin-sick too, but didn’t know it.

Cleansing from sin is available from the Lord, to those who will come to Him in repentance and faith. His gracious ministration is like healing ointment for the soul. That’s what Jeremiah was getting at. He grieved over the sinfulness of his people (Jer. 8:18, 21), and over their blatant and stubborn idolatry (vs. 19). There was a spiritual balm available, if the people had only turned back to God, but in their blindness they refused to do so.

We are either part of the problem, or responsible to be part of the solution. We may not be eloquent preachers, but we can speak a gracious word for Jesus.

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin sick soul.

CH-2) If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.

1) In what ways does having a serious disease parallel the spiritual condition of the sinner?

2) What does the sinner need to do to apply the spiritual “balm” God has provided?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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