STJ#1045, There Is a Balm in Gilead

I sing this to myself all the time but rarely use it in services.

Lately – well, for the past year or so certainly – this has seemed like the right prayer, not only for me and my own sin-sick soul, but for our communities and our nation. In fact, I did use it when I led a white supremacy teach-in at the First Universalist Church of Southold, where the repetition of the chorus was intended to draw us inward to look at our own sins.

I don’t use it very often, though, because it is rare that I find a congregation or group that’s comfortable with the idea that Jesus died for us. I know it’s classical Universalism, but I’m not sure even I’m comfortable with that idea. Yet to remove it completely takes away some of the power of the spiritual.

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.


If you cannot preach like Peter,
If you cannot pray like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
And say “He died for all!”


Yet for all of that, the chorus, based on Jeremiah 8:22 (“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?”) is amazing. It is meant to reassure and hold us, even when all is wrong and we are filled with shame, guilt, regret.

And no matter how slowly you sing it, no matter how long you take with some of the phrases, it’s perfect. There’s a roominess to the song that makes space for our prayers, for our souls, for God.

For those curious about what the balm actually is, see this note found at Hymnary:

Gilead was the name of the mountainous region east of the Jordan River (pictured in the featured image). This region was known for having skillful physicians and an ointment made from the gum of a tree particular to that area. Many believed that this balm had miraculous powers to heal the body. In the book of Jeremiah, God tells the people of Israel that though many believe in the mysterious healing power of this balm, they can’t trust in those powers for spiritual healing or as a relief of their oppression. He reminds them that He is ultimately in control, and only He can relieve their suffering.

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