“There is balm in Gilead” – Baptist News Global


There is a balm in Gilead,
To heal the wounded.
There is a balm in Gilead,
To heal the sin-sick soul.

Healing is a word saturating our media culture promoting products to heal or alleviate a myriad of physical ailments to calls from pulpits, people and politicians for the healing of schisms in our society.

Although we are in the midst of societal upheaval and a catastrophic pandemic, our desire for healing is nothing new in human history. With the prophet Jeremiah, we ask: “Is there no balm in Gilead? are there no physicists here?” (Jeremiah 8:22).

Beverly Howard

The Anonymous Creators of Beloved African-American Spirituality There is a balm in Gilead identified with the struggles, oppression and despair of Old Testament ancestors in faith, creating a song of hope, healing and restoration.

Theologian Howard Thurman puts Jeremiah’s question into context in his book Deep River and The Negro Spiritual are about life and death.

The prophet (Jeremiah) came to a “Dead Sea” place in his life. Not only is he discouraged by the outward events of Israel’s life, but he is also spiritually depressed and tortured. Like a wounded animal, he cried out, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no doctor? It is not a question of fact that he raises — it is not directed to anyone in particular for an answer. It is not addressed to God or to Israel, but rather is a question raised by the whole life of Jeremiah. He is looking for his own soul. He is stripped of the literal substance of himself and turned on himself for an answer. Jeremiah is actually saying, “There must be a balm in Gilead; it is impossible that there is no balm in Gilead. The relentless winnowing of his own bitter experience bared his soul until he was confronted with the very foundation and core of his own faith.

Thurman further interprets the transformation of Scripture into the spiritual:

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

The Old Testament region of Gilead was known for its physicians and as a source of an ointment (made from balsam) used for healing purposes. Theologians have long viewed the Balm of Gilead as a metaphor for Christ, the Great Physician.

“Theologians have long considered the Balm of Gilead a metaphor for Christ, the Great Physician.”

The idea of ​​Jesus as healer of the “sin-sick soul” was popular with 18th-century hymn writers such as John Newton (1725–1807) who wrote the hymn in five stanzas. How lost my condition was. The opening of the first stanza reads:

How my condition was lost,
Until Jesus heals me,
There is only one doctor
Can heal a sin-sick soul.

In the following stanzas, Newton identifies the sin of mankind as a pervasive disease, which afflicts the sin-sick soul. How does the great Physician heal? By grace he gives sight and faith to see Jesus dying and rising again.

A variant of the spiritual refrain “there is a balm in Gilead” first appeared in text-only form in The Revivalist (1853), compiled by Washington Glass as a varied selection of hymns and spiritual songs for use in revivals, meetings, and private devotions. Title The Sinner’s Remedy, Glass appropriated Newton’s text (now divided into 10 stanzas) and attached this refrain to sing after each stanza:

There is a balm in Gilead,
To heal the wounded;
There’s enough power in heaven,
Heal a sin-sick soul.

This particular marriage of Newton’s text with the anonymous refrain appears in many 19th century collections.

“Spirituals, by nature, are contextual, which means that stanzas are created or omitted according to the needs of the community.”

Spirituals, by nature, are contextual, which means that stanzas are created or omitted according to the needs of the community. The music was first published with the standard three stanzas sung today in American Negro Folk Songs (1907), edited by brothers Frederick Jerome Work (1878–1942) and John Wesley Work II (1872–1925). By compiling Folk songs of the American negro, Work II did not include any of the stanzas from the Newton/Glass version. Instead, the stanzas of Work II focus on the singer’s experience of discouragement countered by the hope and restoration offered by the Holy Spirit.

The soothing balm of this spiritual is revered by congregations and is popular with soloists and ensembles. It reminds us that while enduring our most desolate “Dead Sea” spots in life, we can straighten Jeremiah’s question mark into an exclamation mark with the promise of Christ’s healing and wholeness.

Beverly A.Howard lives in Fort Worth, Texas. She is a retired university music teacher, former editor of The Hymn: A Song Journal of the Congregation, and a member of the hymn committees which prepared Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymn and Celebrating Grace: Hymn for Baptist Worship. She is a contributing author of the forthcoming hymnology textbook Singing with Understanding: An Introduction to the Theology of Congregational Christian Song with Martin V. Clarke, Geoffrey Moore and C. Michael Hawn.

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