Hymn Histories : There is a balm in Gilead
Written by : African-American Spiritual, author unknown
Tune : There is a balm in Gilead
Composer : African-American Spiritual, composer unknown
After two hymns arising from heart-ache, today we’re focussing on something soothing and healing – although ultimately challenging! – the old African-American spiritual, ‘There is a balm in Gilead’.
I was driving through Perthshire one evening when I first heard this in a recording by Paul Robeson. I was so moved I had to stop the car just to listen properly – you might want to listen to it now before you read on.
‘There is a balm in Gilead, to make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead, to heal the sin-sick soul.’
Gilead was famous in Old Testament times for its skilful physicians and an ointment with special qualities made from the gum of a tree peculiar to that area which many believed had mysterious, miraculous powers to heal the human body. In fact, when Joseph was sold into slavery, he was sold to a caravan taking balm from Gilead to Egypt.
Jeremiah referenced this when he cried out to his broken people, ‘Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?’ (Jeremiah 8:22) The answer didn’t come then, but African-American Christians answered his question in this spiritual with a resounding ‘Yes, there is a balm in Gilead.’
Despite whatever condition we are in, or whatever misery or difficulty we are going through, Jesus can heal our wounds and make us whole. Do you feel today that you need the balm of Jesus Christ? How wonderful that we can call out to him now for its soothing and healing powers.
We certainly know that the world is crying out for a healing balm. Many are in pain, in so many different ways, and are reaching out for answers. We wonder how, in our Church, we can serve in these times. Could we bring the balm of Jesus Christ today to our family, to our neighbours, to our community? What would that look like for me and for you?
Maybe we can echo the spiritual as it ends:
‘If you can’t sing like angels, if you can’t preach like Paul,
Go home and tell your neighbour that He died to save us all.’
There is a Balm in Gilead sung by Paul Robeson