The Balm of Gilead

Is there no balm in Gilead?
    Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of the daughter of my people
    not been restored?  Jeremiah 8:22

Jeremiah is lamenting here – admitting to the spiritual poverty of his own people. As one commentator put it, Jeremiah “saw the hurt of his people in exile, but he also could see no help for them. There was no medicine, there was no physician; all was sadness and mourning.” Jeremiah recognized a deficiency in Israel that even his own people did not perceive.

That same sorrow can easily overcome pastors, counselors, and spiritually-attuned Jesus-followers as they survey the world around them, and even the people who populate the pews of so many churches. We’re often not even aware of our own need for healing while those who watch over our souls are keenly aware of our need.

If, however, we do become aware of our need for God’s mercy, grace, and fortiveness, there is a balm that soothes and heals the sin-sick soul.

I was invited by a member of the church where I served as a pastoral intern to visit a man who was in the hospital. A vicar is a pastoral intern, usually assigned during the third year of a four-year post-college education program. My vicarage was in Cheyenne, Wyoming. I went to the hospital to visit the gentleman who was bed-ridden and obviously near death.

During my visit with him I asked if it would be OK for me to say a prayer. His answer was not unexpected, “I need all the help I can get.” Indeed. So I prayed. I noticed a softness in his demeanor in response to that time so I decided to probe a little bit.

“May I ask you a spiritual question?”


“If you were to die tonight, do you know for sure you would go to heaven?” This is a pointed question, designed to expose niggling doubts and focus one’s attention toward eternal matters.

“I hope so.” His reply was a common one. Everyone hopes to go to heaven – especially when death looms large.

“May I ask you another question?” He nodded approval. “If you were to die tonight and God were to ask you why he should let you into heaven, what would you say?”

“I’ve always tried to help the youth,” he offered.

I cut him off. “Do you really think that is enough?” He started to cry. He realized it wasn’t enough.

It was in that moment that I brought every Bible promise of the forgiveness of sins, the grace of God, the free gift of eternal life and our eternal hope founded in the death and resurrection of Jesus. I assured him that his sins were forgiven.

He died a very few days later. I was asked to do the funeral, which I did. It was then that I realized how true is the saying, “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” At the funeral I discovered that this man had been a prominent and well-respected person in the whole state of Wyoming. He had served as the head of the parks and recreation department. Indeed he had done much for the youth, on many levels. Had I known that, I might not have been so brutal in my probing. God used my foolishness, however, to open his heart to the balm of Gilead.

Here is the balm of Gilead. Jesus forgives sinners. He never congratulates saints. He is never impressed with the righteous. He honors faith. Faith, at its core honors God, attributes to him good intentions, good character, perfect love, and merciful grace. Faith looks to God and says, “God is good. His mercy endures forever. Great is his faithfulness.” Faith honors God, and God honors faith by returning to the one believing the good that the believer attributes to God.

Faith looks at Jesus on the cross and sees God loving us so much that he took our sins into his being. And it killed him. Faith looks at the tomb in which Jesus was laid and sees our Lord buried there. Faith sees also an empty tomb and a victorious Savior, and a promise that because he lives we too shall live. Faith looks across the eons of time to the Great Last Day when we will be raised and in new, glorified, perfected, bodies – bereft of all sin, sickness, suffering, and sorrow – rejoice in his salvation. Faith receives the gifts of God and looks forward to the perfect outcome of having the balm of Gilead poured into our sin-sick souls.

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

– African-American Spiritual dating from the mid-1800’s

  1. Don Pfennig said:

    Thanks for the memories of my High School years. Baytown Jr High had an outstanding choir then (I went to Horace Mann Jr High across town) and their “trademark” was “There is a Balm in Gilead” back when religious music was not “offensive.” Sometimes the Good-Old-Days were really good. Baytown Junior High Choir gave a concert at Robert E Lee H.S. in Baytown in my Senior year (’57 – ’58) and when they got to this piece, I can still remember the cheering.

  2. IT’s a great piece of music. Glad you have those good memories!

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