Better than Ahava

“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 commonly called, “the weeping prophet.” The author of the book, Lamentations, Jeremiah is known for grieving the sin of his people and their eventual destruction. In chapter 8 he wonders if there is any respite, any comfort, any healing to be found. In ancient times, the region of Gilead was famous for the plants grown there that could be used to produce healing balms. In the face of so much loss, Jeremiah wonders if there is still yet any hope of healing.

It is this verse that inspired the hymn, “There is a Balm in Gilead.” Other than this scriptural connection not much is known about the origin of this hymn. The author and composer of the text and tune are unknown. What is known is that this hymn is numbered among the cherished spirituals of comfort and inspiration sung by African-American slaves.

Howard Thurman, the influential African-American author, pastor, educator, and civil rights leader wrote of this hymn saying,

“The setting is the Book of Jeremiah. The prophet has come to a ‘Dead Sea’ place in his life. Not only is he discouraged over the eternal events in the life of Israel, but he is also spiritually depressed and tortured. As a wounded animal he cried out, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead?’ It is not a question directed to any particular person for an answer. It is not addressed to either God or to Israel, but rather it is a question raised by Jeremiah’s entire life. He is searching his own soul. He is stripped to the literal substance of himself, and is turned back on himself for an answer. The relentless winnowing out of his own bitter experience has laid bare his soul to the end, so that he is brought face-to-face with the very ground and core of his faith.

“The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma, and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’ Here is a note of creative triumph.”

May the faith of this hymn sing to your soul.

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

Sometimes I feel discouraged, // And think my work’s in vain, // But then the Holy Spirit // Revives my soul again”