Today’s Word from Trinity Keyboardist Sheila Weidendorf
“Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (Jeremiah 8:22)
In the Old Testament book of Jeremiah, the people of Israel are in captivity in Babylon. All that is familiar and secure to the people—religiously and culturally—are gone. Surely, they felt aggrieved and lost, forsaken by God—much as Jesus on the cross cried out to his Father, “Why have you forsaken me?” In this modern world with suffering enough the world over, surely all of us have—at one time or another—felt lost, adrift, forsaken.
Indeed, among the more compelling aspects of the NEW testament is the miracle of God made man—that which is transcendent, omniscient, omnipotent taking on human flesh and, thereby, human suffering. Not a distant God sitting on the throne of judgment, God comes to Earth to experience fully God’s own creation. The Holy Sufferer comes to alleviate suffering. Thus Jesus is known not only as the Son of God but also the Son of Man—as well as the Great Physician—come to earth to deliver aid to those in need of his balm.
There is a Balm in Gilead
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.
There is a Balm in Gilead is yet another song that comes to the modern hymody from the archives of African-American spirituals… another song born of the suffering of a people held captive far, far from home. Indeed, many parallels have been made between the experience of Africans held as slaves in the New World and the regular exile and captivity of Israel—their enslavement in Egypt, captivity in Babylon and Assyria, or occupation by the forces of Rome. The old spirituals arising out of slavery on what is now U.S. soil are replete with themes of suffering and eventual deliverance.
But where the 8th chapter of Jeremiah’s writings end with the compelling question, “Why?”–the spiritual resounds with hope of eventual succor and transcendence. African American theologian Howard Thurman (1899-1981) reflects on this question of “Why do we suffer in exile” in his Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975), “The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’ Here is the note of creative triumph.”
Elegantly simple in both melody and harmony, There is a Balm in Gilead was brought out of the field and into widespread performance and worship by the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Thanks to their outreach mission ensuring the longevity of Fisk University, so many beautiful songs live on in hearts and hymnals the world over.
I am offering two versions of this hymn today—one by the great Mahalia Jackson, and my own improvisational twist on this hymn of hope. Follow these links for YouTube videos:
Sheila Weidendorf, Trinity’s Keyboardist