There is a balm in Gilead
to make the wounded whole,
there is a balm in Gilead
to heal the sin-sick soul.
Sometimes I feel discouraged
and think my work's in vain,
but then the Holy Spirit
revives my soul again. Refrain
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." Refrain
Psalter Hymnal, (Gray), 1987
|First Line:||Sometimes I feel discouraged. And think my work's in vain|
|Title:||There Is a Balm in Gilead|
|Refrain First Line:||There is a balm in Gilead,|
|Liturgical Use:||Songs of Response|
In the Old Testament, Gilead was the name of the mountainous region east of the Jordan River. This region was known for having skillful physicians and an ointment made from the gum of a tree particular to that area. Many believed that this balm had miraculous powers to heal the body. In the book of Jeremiah, God tells the people of Israel that though many believe in the mysterious healing power of this balm, they can’t trust in those powers for spiritual healing or as a relief of their oppression. He reminds them that He is ultimately in control, and only He can relieve their suffering. In the New Testament, God answers the suffering of His people by sending His own son to take our place. Jesus becomes our “balm in Gilead.” It is Him we are called to turn to in our times of trial for healing and comfort. We sing this song with that assurance: no matter our hardships or supposed shortcomings, Jesus loves us enough to take our suffering upon Himself.
Since the text was written, probably sometime in the early nineteenth century, it has remained mostly unaltered. There is one verse found in some hymnals and not others: “Don’t ever feel discouraged, for Jesus is your friend, and if you lack for knowledge He’ll not refuse to lend.” This verse is most applicable when the song functions as a call to witness for Christ no matter how unqualified we may feel.
This is a hymn that doesn’t need much accompaniment and can be very powerful when sung a cappella. In the “When/Why/How” section, I suggest a soloist-congregation divide on verse and chorus. If you do this, try having your pianist play only block chords on the verses, giving the soloist some room to improvise, and then come in more fully on the refrain. What’s really interesting about this hymn is that you could completely switch this around for a much different feel. If you pull back on the refrain with just the soloist singing, it becomes a comforting message to the weary masses singing the verses. The Morriston Orpheus Choir performs an arrangement of this that demonstrates the loud cry of the verse and the soft, gentle assurance of the refrain. Chanticleer and Yvette Flunder demonstrate beautiful vocal harmonies and a soft gospel sound that could be imitated by a choir or small vocal ensemble.
This hymn can be used in a service of lament or as a song of comfort in times of discouragement. Note the difference in subject matter between the verses and the refrain. In the refrain, Jesus is the subject, and in the verses, we as God’s people are the subject. In order to make this distinction clear, you could have a soloist sing the verses and the congregation come in on the refrain.
There is a powerful paradox in this hymn. Jesus is our balm, our healer, and yet He could only bring us healing by being wounded Himself. A hauntingly beautiful song by The Brilliance (sibling band of Gungor) that recently came out is called “Wounded Healer.” This song underscores the very same paradox found in “Balm of Gilead” and musically fits the softer mood of the hymn. Since this will most likely be a brand new song for most congregations, I would suggest doing it as the offertory piece or as a solo response and letting the congregation reflect on the words rather than try to figure out the melody as they go.
Laura de Jong, Hymnary.org