The Expository Files

Is There No Balm in Gilead?

 Jeremiah 8:22

Jeremiah asked this famous rhetorical question Jer. 8:22. "Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then 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 verse previous. "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 the people have gotten so bad.

Balm, of course, is a medicinal salve. The people were wounded from their sins and idolatries and needed to be resorted. 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. (Gen. 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 to take the best products of the land "to carry down to the man as a present, a little balm." (Gen. 43:11)

After the captivity, when Israel took the promised land, Gilead, on the west side of the Jordan, became part of their land. The tribe of Gad settled there. The balm trade then became as Israeli one. (Ezk. 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 the 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 its even worse than that - this is the physical illustration of a spiritual point. 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? It was simply 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 into Gilead, and take balm, O virgin, the daughter of Egypt: in vain shalt thou use many medicines; for thou shalt not be cured." (Jer. 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 in 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 this, but we must continue in doing it as well. Consider the state of the church in Laodicea. "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 salve to anoint your eyes, that you may see." (Rev. 3:17,18) Notice especially the part about them being "blind" and needing to get "eye salve" from the Lord. In great parallel to ancient Israel and the balm of Gilead, Laodicea was only 13 miles away from a school famous for its medical knowledge, particularly its eyesalve.

So we see various figures used, but the problem's the same - people steeped in sin though the cure is so near. Are we in need of balm? Are we blind? Or is their another figure that might be better used to describe us -- Jesus also used the figure of thinking you're rich although really you're poor. What figure would be used to describe your life?

Seek the balm, the eyesalve, the clothing, the wealth, etc. that you really need.

By Jay Horsley
From Expository Files 7.6; June 2000