The Balm of Gilead

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” (Jeremiah 8:22).

This verse in the book of the prophet Jeremiah is well known to readers of the Bible. It has been popularized in scores of titles of books, sermons, and in a well-known African-American spiritual hymn, “There Is a Balm in Gilead”:

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

This hymn interprets Jeremiah’s words Christologically because the words of the hymn assume that Christ is the Balm of Gilead that can “heal the sin sicksoul.”

Although the text is well known, many of the interpretations of the words of the prophet (or maybe the words of Yahweh) do not reflect the true intent of Jeremiah’s message to the people of Judah. For instance, in a book by T. C. Horton and Charles E. Hurlburt, The Wonderful Names of Our Wonderful Lord (Uhrichsville, OH: Barbour and Company, Inc., 1996), the authors call Jesus “The Balm of Gilead.” However, I do not think this is what Jeremiah meant when he spoke about the balm of Gilead.

Another problem scholars have is giving the right answer to Jeremiah’s question. Is the answer to Jeremiah’s question “No, there is no balm in Gilead and no, there are no physicians there?” Or is the answer “Yes, there is balm in Gilead and yes, there are physicians there?”

C. F. Keil, in his commentary The Prophecies of Jeremiah (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1950), vol. 1, p. 182 wrote: “To these questions a negative answer is given: if there were balm in Gilead and a physician there, then a plaister would have been laid on the daughter of my people, which is not the case.”

In his book Not Ashamed of the Gospel: Sermons from Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2007), p. 352, Fleming Rutledge wrote: “When Jeremiah spoke those words, he had every reason to believe that the answer was no. If we don’t understand that there really might not have been any, we will never understand the magnitude of God’s saving work.”

Terence Fretheim, in his commentary on Jeremiah (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), p. 154 believes that the answer is positive. He wrote: “The first two questions are rhetorical: Yes, there is balm in Gilead; yes, there are physicians there; but, it is implied, they are powerless to restore health to a patient with this kind of illness.”

Peter C. Craigie, Page H. Kelley, and Joel F. Drinkard, Jr., in their commentary Jeremiah 1-25 (Dallas: Word Books, Publishers, 1991), p. 140, take an ambivalent position. They wrote: “The natural answer to these questions would have to be yes but the reality of the situation demands that Jeremiah answer no.”

The purpose of my post is to provide an alternative reading to Jeremiah’s words, a reading that I believe, reflects the true intent of what Jeremiah was trying to communicate to his audience.

The balm of Gilead was an ointment made from the resin of a tree that was used as a healing ointment. The identity of this tree is unknown although many solutions have been proposed. According to the Old Testament, the balm of Gilead was used for medicine, perfume, and body ointment.

According to Genesis 37:25, an Ishmaelite caravan traveled from Gilead carrying spices, balm and myrrh to sell their merchandise in Egypt. Jeremiah tells the Egyptians to go to Gilead and use its balm because they had used many medicines without finding healing for their sickness (Jeremiah 46:11).

Before a proper identification of the balm of Gilead and the physicians there can be made, it is necessary to identify the illness that caused the incurable wound mentioned by Jeremiah. In order to do this, it is necessary to look at the call of another prophet.

When Yahweh called Isaiah to the prophetic ministry, he gave Isaiah a near impossible mission. Yahweh told Isaiah: “Go, and say to this people: ‘Hear and hear, but do not understand; see and see, but do not perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed” (Isaiah 6:9-10).

Yahweh told Isaiah that his preaching would harden the hearts of the people and they would not listen. The people’s unbelief, their stubborn heart, and their resistence to the prophet’s words were caused by their rebellion against Yahweh.

According to the word of Yahweh to Isaiah, if the people would hear the message the prophet was to proclaim, if they would turn or repent, then they would be healed (v. 10). Thus, it is Yahweh who compares the rebellion of the people with spiritual illness. The rebellion of the people was worse than physical illness and only the message preached by Isaiah could bring the people to repentance and to the healing of its wound.

Thus, the balm of Gilead is a metaphor used by Jeremiah to explain how the people could find a cure for their spiritual illness. The balm that Jeremiah was talking about was not repentance, even though repentance was the first step toward the healing of their wound.

Several times in the Old Testament, the prophets speak about Judah’s rebellion as an incurable wound. Hosea said: “When Ephraim saw his sickness, and Judah his wound, then Ephraim went to Assyria, and sent to the great king. But he is not able to cure you or heal your wound” (Hosea 5:13).

Isaiah said: “Why will you still be smitten, that you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint. From the sole of the foot even to the head, there is no soundness in it, but bruises and sores and bleeding wounds; they are not pressed out, or bound up, or softened with oil” (Isaiah 1:5-6).

In the book of Jeremiah, Yahweh spoke of Judah’s illness and its incurable wound. Of Jerusalem, Yahweh said:

“Her sickness and wounds are ever before me” (Jeremiah 6:7).

“For the wound of the daughter of my people is my heart wounded” (Jeremiah 8:21).

Why was not the wound of God’s people healed? Because the preaching of the false prophets did not provide the healing the people needed. Yahweh himself accused the prophets of not providing healing to the people. Yahweh spoke these words about the prophets:

“For from the least to the greatest of them, every one is greedy for unjust gain; and from prophet to priest, every one deals falsely. They have healed the wound of my people lightly, saying, `Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 6:13-14). The same words are repeated again in Jeremiah 8:10-11. Yahweh is saying that the prophets have healed the wound of the people only lightly because they were preaching the wrong message.

“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wound of my people?” (Jeremiah 8:22). Jeremiah is proclaiming that Judah is like a person who is sick or wounded. He is also proclaiming that the balm of Gilead is the word of God in the mouth of the prophets and that the prophets are the physicians sent by God to bring the medicine that could heal the people.

Thus, in Jeremiah 8:22, the prophet is saying that there were plenty of physicians in Gilead who could heal the spiritual sickness of the people of Judah, for the physicians were the prophets. There was plenty of balm in Gilead, for the balm of Gilead in the mouth of Jeremiah is a metaphor for the word of God being preached by the prophets to a rebellious people. But there was no healing because the prophets were preaching a message that did not bring healing.

Yahweh is the great healer of Israel: “I am the LORD, your healer” (Exodus 15:26). But healing would only come when the prophet faithfully proclaimed the word of God to the people.

The words of Jeremiah have a message for those who preach God’s words. We preach through the power of the Holy Spirit that people’s attitude may be altered, lives may be changed, and transformation may occur. Those who preach are heralds of God’s truth, proclaiming a message of hope to hungry souls and lonely hearts. Everyone who preaches must remember the words of the prophet Micah: “But I am full of the courage that the LORD’s Spirit gives, and have a strong commitment to justice. This enables me to confront Jacob with its rebellion, and Israel with its sin” (Micah 3:8).

Claude Mariottini
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

This entry was posted in Hebrew Bible, Jeremiah, Old Testament and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Balm of Gilead

  1. Pingback: September 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival – Early Edition | Exploring Our Matrix

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