“Is there no balm in Gilead?”

The Prophet Jeremiah
by Michelangelo
From the Sistine Chapel Ceiling

When the prophet Jeremiah was dealing with the rebellion of the people of Judah and with their refusal to repent from their sins and return to God, Jeremiah cried in desperation, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jeremiah 8:22).

This question posed by Jeremiah demonstrates the intensity of the pain in the life of the prophet. The balm of Gilead was an ointment used effectively by the people of Israel to help the healing of wounds. Gilead was known for this ointment balm because it came from a type of tree which existed in abundance throughout that region.

The agony of Jeremiah is at the same time the agony of God. The people of Judah had an incurable wound in spite of the preaching of Jeremiah. For many years Jeremiah had been preaching the word of God to a rebellious people. When Jeremiah was called, God commissioned him to speak in his name by placing his very words in the mouth of the prophet: ‘the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth”’ (Jeremiah 1:9).

Although the words of God were in the mouth of Jeremiah, the people rejected his message and continued to rebel against God. The people knew what was right, but they refused to do what was right. The people knew the proper way to go, but they continued to go away from God.

Knowing the right things to do and the right way to go, the people continued to do what was good in their own eyes. For this reason, their spiritual wound, caused by sin and rebellion, refused to be healed.

Why do people rebel against God? Why do people refuse to do what is right and proper? Why do people continue to do what is wrong even when they know the consequences of their action? One reason is people’s refusal to know and learn the word of God. Some people refuse to study the word of God and discover God’s will for their lives because they know that the moment they discover what is God’s will for their lives, they must obey.

Most people do not realize that ignorance is not a valid excuse. People are responsible for the divine demands, even when they refuse to know and accept them.

Another reason for people’s rebellion against God is their desire to live their lives independently from God. When the serpent tempted Eve in the garden, the serpent said to her, “you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Genesis 3:5).

That is the desire of every human being. Human ambition is to be like God. Human ambition to be like God is nothing but their desire to be free and independent from God. People want to make their own choices and decisions without consulting God.

People want to be their own masters and be accountable to no one. The result is that when people live without God in their lives, their lives are a mess; they are disorganized, facing all kinds of doubts and problems.

When people are alone, facing crisis after crisis, in desperation they cry, “where is God?” The great physician is always near, but because people refuse to receive the only medicine that can help them, their wounds refuse to be healed and they keep on suffering in the agony of their own rebellion.

Is there balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Yes, there is balm in Gilead, and yes, there are many physicians there. Why then is there no healing for the wounds of a rebellious people? The reason the spiritual wounds of people refuse to be healed is because people refuse to abandon their wrong way of living.

The balm of Gilead, the word of God, cannot have its healing effect as long as people refuse to listen. Where can the balm of Gilead be found today? That healing balm can be found when people come to Jesus and allows his words of hope and his sacrificial death on the cross to heal their sins and rebellion against God: “by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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