Sunday, May 02, 2021

Is there no balm in Gilead?

Jeremiah 8:22 Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?
Singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs according to the truth of Scripture ought to be a primary concern in all churches. I find varied views on the subject intriguing. Some people seem so loose that they will sing any words as long as they like the tune. Some people appear so strict that they should not (though they usually do) sing anything that is not the direct text from Scripture.
I recently ran across an interesting and enlightening article about the chorus “There is a balm in Gilead.” The author rightly takes scripture and singing seriously. I agree. However, I think he came to the wrong conclusion because he has a wrong interpretation of the text at hand. Because the song says “there is balm in Gilead” and he interprets Jeremiah to mean “there is no balm in Gilead,”[i] the author believes that anyone singing this song is singing “exactly the opposite of what Scripture says.”
For an opposing (though not highly critical view), I offer the following.
First, the text does not say either “there is balm in Gilead” or “there is no balm in Gilead.” It is not a statement, but rather a rhetorical question. There are three questions in verse 22.
  1. Is there no balm in Gilead?
  2. Is there no physician there?
  3. Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?
Second, the meaning of the text (and therefore the hymn as well) hinges on the answer to the questions posed. How should the first two rhetorical questions be answered? Of course, there is! Of course, there are! Gilead was known for its balm (Cf. Genesis 37:25; Jeremiah 46:11). The surprise, suspense, and shock of the third question – “why then” – presupposes the fact that balm and physicians were there.[ii] Recovery is the reasonable expectation.

Finally, balm and physicians are used metaphorically in the rhetorical device. Emphatically, the question is not about the physical health and well-being of Jerusalem and Judah – but of the spiritual health and well-being. “We looked for peace, but no good came; and for a time of health, and behold trouble!” They hold fast deceit, they refuse to return...know not the judgment of the Lord...have rejected the word of the Lord...dealeth falsely...were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush...have sinned against the Lord. All this, when there was a God in Israel! “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.”
Concerning this text, Baptist forefather John Gill writes,

Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered? that is, seeing there is balm in Gilead, and a physician there, how comes it to pass that such medicine is not made use of, and such a physician not applied to, that health might be restored? This shows the stupidity, sluggishness, and indolence of the people, and how inexcusable they were...
Is there no balm in Gilead?” Of course, there is. Then why are the people not healed? There is only one remedy by which they may be healed – but “ye will not come to me, that ye might have life.” (John 5:40)
Part of the problem with the hymn/chorus, in my opinion, is that it is a sort of “wandering chorus” that is often set and sung with little or no context to clarify the intent or meaning. Placing it with a hymn that clarifies the intent to speak to spiritual health is helpful – Jesus is the balm. Jesus is the physician (Cf. Luke 5:31).
In his hymnbook The Revivalist (Columbus, Ohio, 1853), Washington Glass connects the chorus to John Newton’s “How lost was my condition” (The Good Physician), and calls it “The Sinner’s Cure.” This makes clear that “there is but one physician!”
A beloved song in The Harp of Ages attaches the chorus to the following hymn by Charles Wesley (using stanzas 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6), also emphasizing there is nowhere else to go but to the one physician.
1. Father, I stretch my hands to thee;
No other help I know.
If Thou withdraw thyself from me,
Ah! whither shall I go?
2. What did thine only Son endure,
Before I drew my breath?
What pain, what labor to secure
My soul from endless death!
3. O Jesus, could I this believe,
I now should feel thy power;
And all my wants thou wouldst relieve
In this accepted hour.
4. Surely thou canst not let me die;
Oh, speak and I shall live;
And here I will unwearied lie,
Till thou thy Spirit give.
5. Author of faith! to thee I lift
My weary, longing eyes;
O, let me now receive that gift!
My soul without it dies.
6. How would my fainting soul rejoice,
Could I but see thy face?
Now let me hear thy quickening voice,
And taste thy pardoning grace!
There’s a balm in Gilead,
That cures the sin-sick soul.
There’s a balm in Gilead,
That makes the wounded whole.
“Balm in Gilead” has never been part of my church singing tradition.[iii] I have no need to defend it for that purpose. However, I do think it is defensible based on a proper interpretation of Jeremiah 8:22. On the other hand, if a church (or person) believes the song does not fit their understanding of the verse, they should not violate their conscience. They are well advised not to use it. Nevertheless, they should not project their understanding on those of us who understand that it proposes and defends one salvation in the Lord and not in any other.

[i] “Jeremiah is teaching that there is no balm in Gilead that can heal Israel’s sin-sick soul.”
[ii] Compare also the similar rhetorical device used in Jeremiah 8:19, “Is not the Lord in Zion? is not her king in her,” which cries out for the answer, “Of course there is!”
[iii] That is, it has never been in any hymnbook (songbook, hymnal) that was used by any church where I was a member of pastor.

No comments: