“Is there no balm in Gilead?” asks the prophet Jeremiah towards the end of the 7th century BCE (Jeremiah 8:22). In the midst of political and religious strife, conflict and degradation of society, he sees the Hebrew people have turned away from God and he proclaims the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the nation. He hurts for the people, as does God, and laments their circumstances.
Jeremiah offers this metaphor: is there no balm in Gilead? Gilead is a hilly part of the country, east of the Jordan, famous for a soothing ointment made from the sap of balsam trees. So, he says, is there no soothing ointment that will fix this problem and make everything better? And the answer is no. No there isn’t, there’s only weeping day and night, lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and the death of the people that is to come. And it does. Babylon conquers Judah, Jerusalem is broken and the Temple destroyed.
For Jeremiah, there is no balm for that. It needs more, and that’s Jeremiah’s concern. It needs more than a superficial repair or a moment of comfort, it needs time to hurt and mourn, time to lament. It needs time to journey through the hurt and then it needs something deeper, something transformative, something heartfelt: a turning back to God. Not just in the temple or in the behaviour of priests, politicians or even ordinary people, but a deep, heartfelt and dramatic change in how the people live.
Later, much later, Jeremiah will offer words of hope that a new day is coming, but this moment calls the people to live the hurt and work together with God to transform it.
African-american slaves saw the balm a little differently. They didn’t sing a question, they made a statement: “There is a balm in Gilead/ to make the wounded whole./ There is a balm in Gilead/ to cure the sin-sick soul.” Their reference point is Jeremiah, but the answer is yes, yes there is something that cures the ills of this life: “The Holy Spirit revives my soul again” says one common verse and “You can tell the love of Jesus” says another. This is no salve for irritated skin, this is something deeper, something to be found in the hearts of everyone. Something Jeremiah might understand to be more like the covenant God offers much later through the prophet: “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33).
This is the new covenant that Jesus offers. There is a balm. It’s God’s love and grace, shared by all. And it offers no quick fix. There’s no spiritual “take a pill and be fine tomorrow.” It’s a journey that Jesus walks with us, through the hurt, the grief, the challenges, the successes, the joy and the laughter. It’s the journey to wholeness and we’re invited to walk it together with Jesus.
That isn’t as simple as we can make it sound. It wasn’t for the Hebrews many centuries ago, it wasn’t for African-americans two centuries ago and it isn’t for many, many, many people in the world today. Together, we can make the way better.