Yes, there is...
*For a more immersive experience, scroll to the bottom of this post and click on the Youtube video. Listen softly to the music while you read.
"My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick."
Have you ever felt like this? Like you could just crack open from the weight of your grief? Broken hearted, maybe even crumpled in a heap on the floor, you are laid bare, lost within the darkness of death, illness, depression, trauma, addiction, abuse. Pain. This life can hold so much it. And none of us are immune.
These particular words of pain were written by the prophet Jeremiah after he foresaw the destruction of his people. In his vision, the city of Jerusalem had been destroyed, the people of Judah led away as slaves. Devastated, Jeremiah cries out, "O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night..."
What a lament! Across time, two-thousand-and-six-hundred years later, I can still feel his words. Because I've experienced pain like this myself. Not just in my own life, but in the lives of others. I've felt this lament when a loved one has passed away, in a cancer diagnosis, in the suffering of chronic illness, the grip of addiction, in suicide and abusive relationships, mental illness, trauma and violence and... life. We can't seem to get away from it, can we? But don't forget: God knows suffering, too.
As Jeremiah weeps, his eyes red and puffy, robe askew, he asks, "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?" What he's asking for here is healing. A way to fix what has happened to his people. But there's no healing to be found, because the sickness of his people was a sickness of the soul. And how do you heal the soul?
With another kind of balm entirely.
There is a balm in Gilead. Yes, there is. His name is Jesus Christ. The Bible makes this connection between balm and the son of God in the form of an allegory--a symbolic narrative. The Balm of Gilead, made from the resin of a tree, valued at twice the price of gold and known throughout the ancient world for its powerful ability to soothe and heal, is a prophecy about the coming Savior.
There's an African American spiritual that makes this connection as well. In this excerpt from "History of Hymns: 'There Is a Balm in Gilead', by C. Michael Hawn. (umcdiscipleship.org), we can learn more about the song and this week's Bible passage through the lense of another people who suffered greatly.
Few chapters in the Bible may have resonated with the souls of enslaved Africans in North America as Jeremiah 8 did. Israel was in exile. The Babylonians were preparing to violate their holy places for treasure, dishonoring their dead. This is a chapter of judgment and hopelessness. The exiled Jews are forced to live in a “far country” (Jeremiah 8:19). They wondered what they had done to deserve this. It is the most desperate and despondent time in Israel’s history. Then the chapter ends with these three rhetorical questions: “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (Jeremiah 8:22, KJV)
The refrain of this spiritual offers encouragement and dares to respond with hope in the face of hopelessness, showing courage in the face of despair. African American theologian Howard Thurman (1899-1981) discusses the refrain of this spiritual: “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!’...
Yes. There is! If you only straighten the question mark into an exclamation point you can see him so clearly. You can reach out and take comfort in the healing salve that is Jesus Christ.
A Response to the Word
O sometimes we feel discouraged,
And we think our work in vain,
For the trials that o’ertake us,
Fill our hearts with aching pain . . .
But there is a balm in Gilead.
He makes the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead,
to heal the sin-sick soul.
Click on the Video below to listen to the African American Spiritual,
There Is a Balm in Gilead - by the St. Olaf Choir
Anton Armstrong, Conductor - Marvis Martin, Soprano
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 sing like angels,
If you can’t preach like Paul,
You can tell the love of Jesus,
And say He died for all.