HYMN 127 There is a Balm in Gilead
Text: African American Spiritual Tune: African American Spiritual
R/There is a balm in Gilead To make the wounded whole, There is a balm in Gilead To heal the sin-sick soul.
1. Sometimes I feel discouraged And think my work's in vain, But then the Holy Spirit Revives my soul again. R/
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." R/
This feels right, just now. I need some balm. The balm of Gilead. Gilead is a place east of the Jordan River, now in the state of Jordan, a fertile area where trees could be found from which the balm of Gilead was made. Doctors were said to live there to collect the plants that were good sources for medicines. Thus, traders made their way to the area to buy their goods. Joseph’s brothers sold him to a caravan of traders who were on their way to Egypt with some of these spices. (The image above was done in thanksgiving for Florence being spared the worst of the plague in 1346.)
In Jeremiah the cry goes out, “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then is there no healing for the wounds of my people?” Naturally, those who knew both the Old Testament and the New, would see that Jesus, who had come as a healer and Great Physician, was the balm to heal “the sin-sick soul,” and the body.
To be a preacher or missionary is to share the balm of Gilead, Jesus, with those who needed to hear. The song tells us to preach the love of Jesus.
During these weeks, now months, I have been listening to lectures on the Great Mortality, or Black Death, by Professor Darcey Armstrong of Purdue. It is offered by the Great Courses series. Even though our plague is much less dangerous—some 50% of Europeans died from the plague between 1346-1353—the behaviors of people trying to avoid it, or seek healing, are oddly similar to ours.
Since the people of the Middle Ages had no idea about bacteria or viruses, they made some assumptions about how the illness traveled or how it was caught. They did understand quarantine--and kept ships with pestilence on them from landing for forty days, a practice begun in Ragusa, Croatia, and later in Venice, although isolating those with skin diseases, for example, goes back to Leviticus. And these could be effective.
Some thought, as in Denmark, it was a great miasma that spread in the air like a fog. I have been surprised about how contested the causes for the disease really are—not all scientists are sure that it was the lice on the rats that carried it, many think it was lice on gerbils. Some are thinking it was more likely an infection traveling through the air from person to person. Some even wonder if it were several diseases all at once, the plague, with a hemmorrhragic fever like Ebola, and/or anthrax, or several other possibilities.They do know strange things about it, like some who survived the disease left a genetic marker that kept their descendants from contracting HIV six hundred years later.
To fight the plague, doctors designed something like haz-mat suits pictured above, with a special kind of mask. Looking like a bird’s mask, it had a beak into which they put fragrant flower petals to fight the foul odors of the miasma on which they thought the illness spread—and the gagging smell of the tumors when they broke open, to say nothing of the decaying bodies lying in the streets for lack of people to bury them or the space.
A balm, like the balm of Gilead, was what they were looking for to fill their masks, which did not help, of course, partly because the breathing holes were too large, nor did the flower petals fight the pestilence. Very many of these people ended up succumbing to the disease as well.
We are confident that our Lord is a healer, not only of the body, but of the soul. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 that we are "to God the aroma of Christ to those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death. to the other the fragrance of life." The fragrance is our salvation. It cures the sin-sick soul. So much so, the hymn tells us, that we should preach the good news to people. Even if the virus, like the plague, may have to simply burn itself out, the one thing we do know is that we have the words of eternal life. We can tell them, as the hymn says, to those in our midst who are fearful and wonder how to calm their anxieties. A word from you to another can be that balm. Spread its fragrance around! it kills the smell of death.
This is one of those texts and tunes that simply have emerged from the soil so to speak. It was probably improvised by people as they were working together in the fields, or in the kitchen. There are pieces of these lyrics in hymns that we can trace, like a couple lines from John Newton, or a similar chorus by Washington Glass in “The Sinner’s Cure.” They can be found in the early singing school books of the South, so they would have been easily available to the slaves as well. William Dawson arranged the spiritual for an anthem which Anton Armstrong featured, among many others, on an album by the St. Olaf Choir. (See Hymn 69 for more information on Dawson.)
LINKS Anton Armstrong and the St. Olaf Choir https://youtu.be/SFFmnntACpE
Nina Simone https://youtu.be/n3KF3zUFDzI
Soweta Gospel Choir https://youtu.be/gBLt99sL2us
The Mormon Tabernacle Choir https://youtu.be/NjW0VleQFxk