Balm in Gilead

By Michael Smith

A Reading from Jeremiah 8:18-9:6

18 My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
   my heart is sick.
19 Hark, the cry of my poor people
   from far and wide in the land:
“Is the Lord not in Zion?
   Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
   with their foreign idols?”)
20 “The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
   and we are not saved.”
21 For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
   I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.

22 Is there no balm in Gilead?
   Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
   not been restored?

1 O that my head were a spring of water,
   and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
   for the slain of my poor people!
2 O that I had in the desert
   a traveler’s lodging-place,
that I might leave my people
   and go away from them!
For they are all adulterers,
   a band of traitors.
3 They bend their tongues like bows;
   they have grown strong in the land for falsehood, and not for truth;
for they proceed from evil to evil,
   and they do not know me, says the Lord.

4 Beware of your neighbors,
   and put no trust in any of your kin;
for all your kin are supplanters,
   and every neighbour goes around like a slanderer.
5 They all deceive their neighbors,
   and no one speaks the truth;
they have taught their tongues to speak lies;
   they commit iniquity and are too weary to repent.
6 Oppression upon oppression, deceit upon deceit!
   They refuse to know me, says the Lord.


Amid God’s grief and anguish over being abandoned by the chosen people and their coming destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, we hear the lament: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” The words sound familiar to us from the traditional Afro-American spiritual found in the Hymnal at No. 676: “There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole, there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.” Gilead was a region east of the Jordan River. From there was produced a fragrant ointment made from tree resin that was used medicinally. This “balm” was used as a salve due to its healing properties. Surely, the prophet cries, there must be something that will restore health to God’s people!

But the injury for which God’s people needed healing is not physical, for which the balm of Gilead might have been good medicine, but rather spiritual. They have been wounded spiritually by their sin, by their disobedience to God’s commandments and covenant relationship. Their sin-sick souls needed a spiritual salve, just as ours do.

This theme calls to mind words from another hymn by 19th century gospel music writer, James Lowry: “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus; What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” Or, in Cranmerian language, “by the merits and death of thy Son Jesus Christ, and through faith in his blood, may we obtain remission of our sins” (BCP p. 335). It sounds like the true balm of Gilead is the blood of Jesus.

Michael G. Smith served as bishop of North Dakota for fifteen years and is currently the Assistant Bishop of Dallas. He works with the Navajoland Iona Collaborative and is a Benedictine Oblate and an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

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