One of my favorite hymns is “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” There is a depth to this hymn that expresses a longing for healing and wholeness. It acknowledges that there is a wellness in Jesus Christ that goes beyond physical healing and reaches into our very souls and even the entirety of creation.
“Balm of Gilead” was an aromatic medicinal ointment. Jeremiah 8:22 asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” The refrain of this African American spiritual answers the question: “There is a balm in Gilead.” At first blush that seems like a strange answer, because the stanzas seem unconnected to it, until you realize that they tell you where the balm is located.
It is not in Gilead or in any place in this world where horrible things like oppression and lynchings happen. No, it is the Holy Spirit who “revives my soul,” and it is Jesus who “is your friend” and “died for
This means that if you know where hope is found—namely, in God—the balm is paradoxically precisely in Gilead and in every other
place in this world. Or, as James Cone said when he cited this spiritual, “Hope, in the black spirituals, is not a denial of history, [but] the belief that things can be radically otherwise than they are: that reality is not fixed, but is moving in the direction of human liberation.”
Like many black spirituals, the origin of the text and tune for “There Is a Balm in Gilead” is difficult to track down. Many of these songs
were anonymously handed down through an oral tradition. The song was probably formed in the early part of the nineteenth
century. The first appearance of the refrain was found in Washington Glass’s 1854 hymn “The Sinner’s Cure.” The complete spiritual appeared in Folk Songs of the American Negro in 1907.
(excerpts from Paul Westermeyer, Hymnal Companion to Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2010, p. 454-455.)