Hymn Story

There Is a Balm in Gilead

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There Is a Balm in Gilead

African-American slaves sang spiritual songs to bring a bit of light into their otherwise bleak existence.  Their songs comforted and strengthened them.  Some, such as “Go Down, Moses,” held out promise of freedom, but in a way that slave owners found it difficult to repress.  After all, who could deny slaves the right to recount the Biblical story of God freeing the Israelites from Egyptian slavery?

The spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead,” takes a different tack, emphasizing the comfort that God makes available.  A balm is an ointment that reduces pain or heals sores.

“There Is a Balm in Gilead”  finds its roots in Jeremiah 8:22, where the prophet asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?  Is there no physician there?”

Gilead was a mountainous part of the territory of Manasseh, one of the twelve tribes of Israel.  It was known for plants and herbs that could be used to produce healing balms.  But the prophet told Israel:

In vain do you use many medicines;
there is no healing for you.
The nations have heard of your shame,
and the earth is full of your cry;
for the mighty man has stumbled against the mighty,
they are fallen both of them together (Jeremiah 46:11-12).

But this song assures those who are discouraged or suffering that there is, indeed, “a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole.  There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul” (refrain).

The song admits discouragement, thinking that one’s work is in vain.  “But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again” (v. 1).

It also encourages spreading the Good News to help others who might be suffering.

If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all (v. 2).

That’s the ultimate hope, of course—that Jesus died for all—the innocent (of whom there are none) and the guilty (of whom there are many)—plantation owners and slaves alike—and ordinary people like you and me.

Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.

Copyright, 2015, Richard Niell Donovan