Reflection on 'There is a Balm in Gilead'

The past several months in this country have made many weary, worn out, and tired. From fighting a pandemic to fighting racial injustice, there have been difficulties in neighborhoods from coast to coast. During these times of struggle and injustice, the meaningful message of hymns continues to provide comfort and point people to Christ.

In today's post, read Dr. Joseph Herl's commentary on one well-known African American Spiritual hymn, “There is a Balm in Gilead” (LSB 749), from Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns.

Hymn Text

Refrain: “There is a balm in Gilead To make the wounded whole; There is a balm in Gilead To heal the sin-sick soul.”

Stanza 1: “Sometimes I feel discouraged And think my work’s in vain, But then the Holy Spirit Revives my soul again.”

Stanza 2: “If you cannot preach like Peter, If you cannot pray like Paul, You can tell the love of Jesus And say He died for all.”

Stanza 3: “Don’t ever feel discouraged, For Jesus is your friend; And if you lack for knowledge, He’ll ne’er refuse to lend.”

Hymn Commentary

The theme of rest from a wearisome life is prominent in spirituals. The Gilead of this spiritual is the region east of the Jordan River bordering the southern part of ancient Canaan (see Genesis 31:21–22). Crossing the Jordan is a metaphor in both black and white folk traditions for dying and arriving in heaven. But the direction of crossing is westward from Gilead into Canaan, the Promised Land (Genesis 15:18–21). What sense does it make to cross eastward into Gilead, which would mean leaving the Promised Land?

The answer is that this spiritual refers not to heaven, but to a healing from sin that enables one to continue serving God. In the days of ancient Israel, Gilead was famous for a balsamic resin believed to have healing properties (“Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there?” [Jeremiah 8:22; see also Jeremiah 46:11]). Today, it is Christ who heals through His Holy Spirit, and He is our Gilead.

The hymn is in the category of “Hope and Comfort,” but it is just as relevant for the “Vocation” section, inasmuch as the stanzas refer to Christians who see little fruit from their attempts to live their lives in service to God and neighbor. The stanzas combine comforting words with cheerleading. There is hope for one who is discouraged, for the Holy Spirit never ceases to work, sanctifying and preparing lives for service. It does not matter whether our jobs are the ones society at large, in its superficial understanding, values most; it matters only whether we do the work of Christ in whatever task presents itself, whether overtly “spiritual” or not. And if we believe ourselves incapable of something God has given us to do, the Holy Spirit will supply whatever we need (the “knowledge” referred to in stanza 3).

Post adapted from Lutheran Service Book: Companion to the Hymns copyright © 2019 Concordia Publishing House. All rights reserved.

To read more commentary on hymns, order the Companion to the Hymns below.

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