“There Is a Balm in Gilead”

“Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there?” (Jer. 8:22)

     INTRO.: A song which takes the idea of balm in Gilead and applies it to our spiritual needs today is “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” The text and the tune (Balm in Gilead) are both identified as a traditional African-American spiritual or folk hymn of unknown origin. The first appearance of the song in something close to its current form is uncertain. A version of the refrain can be found in Washington Glass’s 1854 hymn “The Sinner’s Cure,” which read, “There is balm in Gilead To make the wounded whole; There’s power enough in heaven To cure a sin-sick soul.” Glass attributed the hymn to himself, but like several other hymns so attributed, it is substantially made up from the work of another. The refrain was evidently used in revival meetings and was also published in the upstate New York Revivalist of 1868. The present version is taken from the source in which it first appeared, the Folk Songs of the American Negro, published at Nashville, TN, in 1907 by Frederick J. Work and John W. Work Jr. Most books have two traditional stanzas. The second stanza beginning “If you can’t sing like angels” has sometimes been attributed to Daniel March, but it may be that he just altered a traditional stanza that began “If you can’t preach like Peter” for a hymn which he was writing.  Some books add a third stanza from an unknown source. I have also included a fourth stanza which was actually written by John Newton (author of “Amazing Grace). Apparently, Newton’s hymn was very popular in the South, including among slaves, and because of its last line is thought by some to have possibly influenced the development of the spiritual. Many arrangements of the song have been made.

     Several have expressed various ideas about what the song means. Wikipedia says, “The ‘balm in Gilead’ is a reference from the Old Testament, but the lyrics of this spiritual refer to the New Testament concept of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Balm of Gilead is interpreted as a spiritual medicine that is able to heal Israel (and sinners in general).” Another source made a similar comment yet with a different twist. “The ‘balm in Gilead’ is quoted in the Old Testament, but the lyrics of this spiritual refer to the New Testament (Jesus, Holy Spirit, Peter, and Paul). This difference is interesting…. In the Old Testament, the balm of Gilead cannot heal sinners. In the New Testament, Jesus heals everyone who comes to Him.” William J. Reynolds in the “History of Hymns” noted, “In the Old Testament days, Gilead was the name of the mountainous region east of the Jordan River, mentioned 80 times in the Old Testament. Gilead was famous for having skillful physicians and for an ointment with special qualities made from the gum of a tree peculiar to that area. The balm, a fragrant, transparent, pale yellow ointment, was known far beyond the boundaries of Gilead. Many believed in its mysterious, miraculous powers to heal the human body. Jeremiah’s question is answered in the spiritual with the assurance that the work of the Holy Spirit makes the wounded whole, and heals the sinsick soul.”

     Among hymnbooks published by members of the Lord’s church during the twentieth century for use in churches of Christ, “There Is a Balm in Gilead” appeared in the 1975 Supplement to the 1937 Great Songs of the Church No. 2 originally edited by E. L. Jorgenson; and the 1978 Hymns of Praise edited by Reuel Lemmons (both in an arrangement by Jack Boyd). Today, it may be found in the 1978/1983 Church Gospel Songs and Hymns edited by V. E. Howard; the 1986 Great Songs Revised edited by Forrest M. McCann (both in the arrangement by Boyd); the 1990 Songs of the Church 21st C. Ed. and the 1994 Songs of Faith and Praise both edited by Alton H. Howard (and both in an arrangement by David Sexton); and the 1992 Praise for the Lord edited by John P. Wiegand. Among other hymnbooks, I have seen some form of the hymn in the 1964 Methodist Hymnal with an arrangement by Daniel Rideout and the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal with an arrangement by William Farley Smith both from the (United) Methodist Publishing House; the 1974 Hymns for the Living Church and the 2001 Worship and Rejoice hymnal both from Hope Publishing Company; the 1976 Hymns for the Family of God from Brentwood-Benson Music Publishing; the 1979 Praise: Our Songs and Hymns from Singspiration Music with an arrangement by Jon Drevits; the 1986 Hymnal for Worship and Celebration from Word Music; the 1987 Worship His Majesty hymnal from Gaither Music Company; the 1989 Worship the Lord Hymnal of the Church of God from Warner Press; the 1991 Baptist Hymnal from Convention Press; the 1992 Hymnal: A Worship Book from Brethren Press; the 1993 Sing to the Lord Hymnal from the Lillenas Publishing Company; and the 2006 Christian Life Hymnal from Hendrickson Publishers Inc.

     The song can be used to encourage us in continuing our service to the Lord.

I. Stanza 1 talks about being discouraged and then revived
“Sometimes I feel discouraged, And think my work’s in vain,
But then the Holy Spirit Revives my soul (hope) again.”
 A. We all likely feel discouraged at times, as did Elijah: 1 Ki. 19:10
 B. Sometimes we even think that our work is in vain, as did Paul: Gal. 2:2
 C. However, at such times we can be revived by the influence of the Holy Spirit who taught the apostles all things to reveal to mankind from God: Jn. 14:26

II. Stanza 2 talks about telling others that Jesus died for them
“If you can’t sing like angels, If you can’t preach like Paul,
Just tell the love of Jesus, And say He died for all.”
(Some sources begin, “If you can’t preach like Peter, If you can’t pray like Paul;”
other sources end, “Go home and tell your neighbor, ‘He died to save us all.’”)
 A. We may not know exactly how angels sing, but we know that they do sing praises to Christ: Rev. 5:9-12
 B. We have never heard Paul preach, but we know that he was a preacher of the gospel: 1 Tim. 2:87
 C. But if we cannot sing like angels or preach like Paul, we can still tell others about the love of Jesus and how He died for all: 2 Cor. 5:14

III. Stanza 3 talks about having Jesus for a friend
“Don’t ever feel discouraged, For Jesus is your Friend,
And if you look (lack) for knowledge, He’ll ne’er refuse to lend.”
 A. Jesus came to be our Friend: Jn. 15:15
 B. Sometimes we lack the knowledge and wisdom to do what we need to do: Jas. 1:5
 C. However, because Jesus is our Friend, He will never refuse to provide for our needs as we ask Him: Matt. 7:7-8.

IV. Stanza 4 talks about being lost and then made whole
“How lost was my condition Till Jesus made me whole!
There is but one Physician Can cure a sin-sick soul.”
 A. At one time or another, everyone of us is lost, like the prodigal son, because of sin: Lk. 15:24, Rom. 3:23
 B. However, there is a Physician who can make us whole: Matt. 9:12
 C. Jesus can cure our sin-sick souls through His implanted word: Jas. 1:21

     CONCL.: The chorus points to the fact that just as there was a balm in Gilead, so there is healing for our souls in Christ Jesus.
“There is a balm in Gilead To make the wounded whole;
There is a balm in Gilead To heal the sin sick soul.”
Each person has a problem with sin and needs to be saved, and even Christians have a problem with discouragement from time to time and need encouragement. Thus it is good to be reminded that in order to meet all our spiritual needs, we can find that through Jesus Christ “There Is a Balm in Gilead.”


2 thoughts on ““There Is a Balm in Gilead”

  1. Is this song copyright protected? Would it be legal to copy this song for a private group of Christians that like to sing?


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