Balm of Gilead

In the songs, “There is a Balm in Gilead” and “Did You Think to Pray?” we sing of an ancient medicine which has become a reference to the forgiveness and spiritual healing of God.

This “balm” is an aromatic ointment made from the Gilead balsam, which now grows in southern Arabia. In Bible times, the balsam and the medication were common in Gilead, on the east side of the River Jordan. This medication was well-known in the ancient Near East, and was used as an article of trade. Its soothing and healing properties made it a respected and potent part of ancient medical practice.

Balm of Gilead today means more than the simple medicinal ointment. In Jeremiah 8:21, the prophet agonizes over the spiritual condition of the Kingdom of Judah. He then laments, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” (Jeremiah 8:22). For all the medications and physicians available for physical ailments, there was nothing similar available for a sin-sick kingdom. Jeremiah 46:11 points to the futility of using even the powerful balm of Gilead. Jeremiah later prophetically suggests that the balm might be used to bring healing to Babylon in her great fall (Jeremiah 51:8), but Babylon could not be cured.

Instead, the Jewish people had to look to God to supply both the medication and the healing touch necessary to heal their kingdom. The needed healing was as close as Gilead was to Judah, and just as accessible. They needed to invoke 2 Chronicles 7:14, “If my people, who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from Heaven, and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” The ancient Jews, as many today, would not submit to either the cure or the physician, thus deepening their pain and suffering under the control of sin. What a sad picture that medical help is available and powerful, and yet not taken advantage of!

Matthew Henry points out, “The blood of Christ is balm in Gilead, His Spirit is the physician there, both sufficient, all-sufficient.” There is no sin-sick soul that He cannot heal and give new life.

–Craig Alan Myers
September/October 2000