Jeremiah chapter 8 – ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’
It’s become one of those phrases or sayings from the Bible that many of us know and can quote, but can’t exactly place. But often we get it slightly wrong; because we might know the song that takes this verse. And there’s a subtle difference between the Bible verse and the song…
The Bible verse tells us that the prophet said, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?
But the song says
There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole,
there is a balm in Gilead
to heal the sin-sick soul.
Sometimes I feel discouraged
and think my work’s in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit
revives my soul again.
There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole,
there is a balm in Gilead
to heal the sin-sick soul.
Do you hear the difference? Today I want to take us to the place where we can hear that difference – not just in the words, but in the theology, in the hope, in the faith, in the experience. Because I think it’s a difference we all need to hear.
The verse comes from a place in the story of Jeremiah where he asks, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ He asks this question – he wrenches this cry from his heart – because he is not at peace with God and the world. He is not at peace because he is so dismayed by the suffering of the people. Jeremiah is at the point of wondering whether there really is any healing balm for his people. He says,
‘My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick.
For the hurts of my people I hurt..
Is there no balm in Gilead?’
So what’s the story? Why was he moved to ask this question, to cry out to God…?
Gilead was a place in Palestine known for producing the herbs and spices that made a healing balm, the kind that people relied on and swore by. Perhaps you remember the bit in the story of Joseph where he was thrown down a pit by his brothers and then sold to some Ishmaelite merchants. The story tells us that those Ishmaelites were carrying balm from Gilead. It was something very special in the ancient world. The balm of Gilead was a bit like Germolene or Calpol or Nivea, the kind of thing that people turned to if there was a need, the kind of thing we grandmas swear by. In times when skin was ravaged by hot sun and dry winds, by hard labour and a tough life, healing balm was highly valued. This wasn’t so much the make up counter in Debenhams, but the pharmacy of the Bible – the place you could find something to soothe the wounds of human life. The balm of Gilead was a real blessing. When there is not much more you can do than bring comfort with touch and healing ointment, it’s very precious indeed. We all need balm. I can remember as a child being aware of how rough my mother’s hands were from all the housework and how it was a special moment in her day when she could take off her apron, sit down and use the hand cream that smelt so lovely and that brought her comfort. That was the moment in her day when the cares of the world fell away and she could be restored. We all need a bit of that, especially when life is tough for us.
And, of course, there are worse pains in this world than the blisters of work and the soreness of labour. Jeremiah knew that the people of his time were really suffering. He was feeling the hurt of his people, their grief and pain. For the hurts of my people I hurt, he says. Is there no balm in Gilead? The famous healing balm of Gilead becomes a kind of symbol for anything that might heal deeper hurts and pains still. Jeremiah is doing what Jewish prophets and teachers were unafraid to do – he was railing against God, challenging God, berating God. Is there no healing for the people?! Do they have to go on hurting? Have the doctors run out of ointment or painkillers? Have you nothing to give them for their pain? Is there no balm in Gilead?
And I imagine we know a little what that feels like. As the Elders reflect each month on the needs of our congregation and the people who come here and are part of our community, knowing that we might only know a little of what people are holding and carrying and enduring, you might forgive us sometimes for saying in our prayers – ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ There seems so much pain and trouble in so many lives and we hurt for the hurts of our people. Is there no balm in Gilead?
In the first letter to Timothy, the author seems convinced that ‘God desires everyone to be saved.’ But sometimes it seems as though everyone is suffering, as though there is too much pain and never enough balm. What would it mean to know and to trust that God really desires everyone to be saved, to be healed, to be delivered from their pain? What would it mean? What would it mean if there truly was enough balm in Gilead and Galmington and any other place in the world, enough to heal every wounded soul?
That, I think, is where the different note of the song comes in. The song doesn’t say ‘Is there no balm in Gilead. It says ‘There is a balm in Gilead..’ There is balm in Gilead’. For the song and those who sing it the balm is real, the balm is promised, and it is promised and demonstrated in Jesus. There is balm in Gilead, to heal the sin sick soul. There is balm.
So you are thinking perhaps – ‘Who is it who can sing this simple song of such faith in the face of pain and suffering?’ What kind of people found they were able to sing that there is balm in Gilead when even the great prophet Jeremiah had days in his life when life was so miserable that he could only cry out with the kind of question that wonders whether anyone could possibly believe that such balm was still there? And you might conclude that the kind of people who can sing that kind of song – must be people for whom life has gone well, people who are not much troubled by pain or suffering, people who are comfortable and privileged, a bit naïve perhaps.
But no. The wonder and the miracle of faith is that the people who have sung this song, the people who have made it their anthem have been people who have suffered a great deal, who have been subject to injustice and trauma, people who have hurt and grieved and wept. Let me tell you about some of them. And let us see what their faith bears witness to.
This week I met someone whose close friend was standing beside Martin Luther King on a balcony when he was assassinated. It’s a long time ago now but the horror of that day and what it represents still lives. A Baptist pastor who campaigned for racial justice was shot and killed. But the people who were with him on that march to justice sang this song. The song became a kind of anthem of the civil rights movement. They did not sing ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ as they might have done. They sang instead the different line..
‘There is a balm in Gilead….’
They sang with conviction and passion and power, without question or despair – that there is balm in Gilead, that Jesus is with us, that there is hope. It acknowledges that there can be pain and discouragement on the journey of life, but it is absolutely clear that there is balm in Gilead.. and that the balm can be found in Jesus.
The origins of the hymn are not available because it began in oral traditions, but it first appeared in print in a book of 1907 called ‘Folk Songs of the American Negro’. There are different versions of the song around too – but it certainly comes from an African American root – and it became a song that accompanied black Americans as they struggled for civil rights and for justice. There is a balm in Gilead… Martin Luther King himself loved this hymn. At meetings in his home in Atlanta, this Baptist pastor would stand at the end of their time together, his eyes closed, rocking back and forth on his heels, singing this song. His widow said that it was this hymn that her husband quoted and sang when he needed a lift. Can you imagine what kind of ‘lift’ such a man must have needed? This song gave it to him. And it was this song, with this faith more confident than Jeremiah, that Luther King sang. There is a balm in Gilead.
I also heard this week of a charity in America that helps people of African descent to have better health – and it helps some of the poorest people in the US, people who sometimes struggle to access health care, find a place of healing and wholeness. It works with people living with AIDS, for example. This charity is called Balm in Gilead.. Here are those who are hurting for the hurt of their people – like Jeremiah. And no doubt those who founded this charity once may have cried, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ – but they have refused to stay with lament and doubt, but they live out of the faith that there is balm in Gilead… there really is.
There are also books called Balm in Gilead – one of them is the autobiography of the first black woman to graduate as a doctor in the US, a story of resilience, persistence and hope.. I’m sure you can imagine what that would have taken even to believe that possible once…
I find it such a powerful witness that it is the most hurting, the most suffering people, who can yet bear testimony that there is balm in Gilead.
So, I guess we have to choose. Or perhaps we have to hope. There are days in all our lives when we can only manage the kind of frustrated screaming of Jeremiah who feels the pain of his people so much that he can only shout at God and say, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?!’.. But then perhaps there are wonderful, grace-filled, rare moments when we can hear, as though in the distance but with increasing insistence, the songs of those who know there is balm in Gilead, to heal the wounded soul, those who know that justice will come one day, that hope is real, that even though we will die we will find life again. There is balm in Gilead.
Those who find this balm tend to find it not because they have money and privilege and power. They don’t find it because they are ignorant or naïve about how messy life really can be. They don’t find it on their own, or in the seclusion of their own thoughts. They find it walking the streets with others who share their pain. They find it in church. They find it given to them by the most amazing grace – from the hands of a God who hurts when they hurt and who loves them so much that God desires that all shall be saved. They find it with each other and with God. In profound and close community, in faith shared and doubts expressed in safety, in commitment to a better world, in defiance of a world that tries to persuade us that it is all about the market and the money, they discover that there really is balm in Gilead.
But these people are not they. This is ustoo. As we share faith here, as we give ourselves to each other and to the world, we will find that there is balm in Gilead, there is balm in Taunton, there is balm for your wounds and mine, there is balm. Because the Gospel tells us that wherever God’s people are hurting, wherever there are sinners, wherever there are those despised by the world, that’s where Jesus goes. And he is the comfort of us all, the ointment of grace, the balm of Gilead…
Let’s thank God that even when we are at the very depths we know that there is balm in Gilead. And may your wounded soul, and all wounded ones in this world, find healing and wholeness and hope. In the name of God, Amen.