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Vol 5 No 21 July 2, 2000

Is There No Balm in Gilead?

(Jeremiah 8:22)

Jay Horsley


JEREMIAH ASKED THIS famous rhetorical question in Jer 8:22. "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why has not the health of the daughter of my people been restored?" The dire conditions of the people that caused them to need balm was given in the previous verse. "For the brokenness of the daughter of my people I am broken; I mourn, dismay has taken hold of me." Jeremiah was dismayed and maybe even disgusted that the condition of God's people had become so bad.

Balm, of course, is a medicinal salve. The people were wounded from their sins and idolatries and needed to be restored. This brokenness is compared to physical maladies and physical cures to illustrate how unnecessarily tragic it was. People had sought the balm of Gilead to help their illnesses for centuries. In fact, the caravan that Joseph was sold to was heading to Egypt carrying balm from Gilead (Genesis 37:25). A few years later when Joseph sent his brothers back for their remaining brother Benjamin (before he had revealed himself to them) their father Jacob said as they returned to Egypt to take the best products of the land; to "carry down to the man as a present, a little balm"(Genesis 43:11).

After the captivity, when Israel took the promised land, Gilead, on the west side of the Jordan, became part of the land. The tribe of Gad settled there. The balm trade then became an Israelite one (Ezekiel 27:17). The reason for all this was that one of the trees there secreted a turpentine like resin that was highly sought after. It is said that this balm was worth twice its weight in silver.

So Jeremiah's question is, "How can a people who traded in balm be so sick?" Of course the situation was actually even worse in that this was used as an illustration for a spiritual sickness. The real question behind the illustration is, "How can the people of God, with the law in their midst, be so sinful?!"

What was the solution for the Jews at this time? It was simply to use the balm that they already had. And later, Jeremiah would use the same figure to express what the Egyptians needed to do: "Go up to Gilead, and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt; in vain shalt thou use many medicines; for thou shalt not be cured" (Jeremiah 46:11). So the solution for Jews and Gentiles alike is to go to Gilead and get balm. The heathens and Jews could be healed only by seeking help where it could truly be found -- in God.

Today as Christians, we read of such troubles and are tempted to say, "My, I'm glad we've learned our lessons better than that now. We've gone to the Lord for help and have received it." True, to become Christians we must have done just that, but we must continue to do it as well. Consider the state of the church in Laodocea. "You say, 'I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,' and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire, that you may become rich, and white garments that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and eye slave to anoint your eyes, that you may see." (Revelation 3:17,18). Notice especially the part about them being "blind" and needing "eye slave" from the Lord, a great parallel to ancient Israel and their need for the balm of Gilead. Laodocea was only 13 miles from an ancient school famous for its medical knowledge, and in particular, its eye salve.

So we see various figures used, but the problem is the same -- people steeped in sin when the cure is so near. Are we in need of the balm of Gilead in our life today? Are we sick? Are we spiritually blind? The remedy is in the hands of the great physician of our souls. Seek the balm that we really need. Let us come unto Him and receive healing!


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