Is there no Balm in Gilead? Why then are you not healed?
A sermon on Jeremiah 8:18-9:1 by Jill Friebel, 19 September 2004


My joy is gone, grief is upon me,
my heart is sick.
Hark, the cry of my poor people
from far and wide in the land:
“Is the LORD not in Zion?
Is her King not in her?”
(“Why have they provoked me to anger with their images,
with their foreign idols?”)
“The harvest is past, the summer is ended,
and we are not saved.”
For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt,
I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me.
Is there no balm in Gilead?
Is there no physician there?
Why then has the health of my poor people
not been restored?
O that my head were a spring of water,
and my eyes a fountain of tears,
so that I might weep day and night
for the slain of my poor people!

Is there no balm in Gilead? Why are my poor people not healed?

“A lament is the regret and longing for a deep loss. It is the weeping and sorrow and shame from the results of a bad decision or bad living. Everyone experiences laments in life. Some are large, some are small, but all are the occasion the regret of what has happened, what we've done, or how things have turned out.” (Weaks)

You put yourself out on a limb to start up your own business only to discover the market is tougher than you thought and you end up working your guts out just to cover costs. That’s a lament.

You buy a ticket hoping to see your footy team win and instead you endure a humiliating defeat. That’s a lament.

You visit friends who have just lost a baby and they ask if you would read them something from the Bible to give them comfort, and you don’t know where to go because you haven’t read it for years. A lament.

Laments are unbound by time. People go homeless, suffer addictions, others starve, and the killings go on, Beslan, Jakarta, Gaza, Iraq. We experience laments in our life and also in this text. The poetic lament in Jeremiah 8, leaves some room for interpretation and the following is one.

This could be God speaking through Jeremiah, lamenting the loss of Israel, knowing the coming distress of his poor people. We have heard recently how other prophets describe God as longing to have a relationship with us. In Hosea God lamented over the loss of his lover Israel when they went after other lovers. They closed their ears and eyes to all his efforts to woo them back and still they refused to return to him. They went for gods they made with their own hands. Ones that could give them nothing of lasting happiness, let alone love.

The critical question is “Why were they turning to other gods when He had provided all they needed?” God asks this rhetorical question “Is there no Balm in Gilead”? Gilead was used to describe a region east of the Jordan, which was noted for trading in balm, a kind of aromatic resin that was regarded as having properties that eased pain or covered the smell of festering wounds. Gilead could also refer to the whole of the Transjordan, all of the Israeli fertile rich grazing lands. The rich woodlands covering its hills are cited with Lebanon and Carmel as a symbol of luxury. The balm of Gilead was a well-known term of blessings and gifts, gifts of God to his chosen people. “Yet all this richness and joyous potential was lost because the people lacked the will to amend their ways in order to find God.” (Clements, 59)

God had plenty to lament about. God knew there was a balm in Gilead because he put it there. So many blessings but they were not enough for the chosen people to stay faithful. God has created a world of wonders, beauty and fertility that keeps producing and giving out of mother earth. Mahatma Gandhi said, “There is enough in the world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.”

Is there no balm in Gilead? Why are my poor people not healed?

In the middle of this passage the voice becomes the cry of the people “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." There is disbelief that God could bring this disaster upon them. Wasn’t he their King and they his covenant people? How could he do this if God is God, how could he allow such things to happen, surely he will come rushing in and miraculously deliver them? Why is God doing this to me?

God responds in the middle of these questions - “Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?" God is offended by these claims and the sense of offence is matched only by the divine distress over what this means for them. They will be slain and God and the prophet lament uncontrollably for a sick and dying people for whom there is no healing, no closing of the wound. There are not enough tears to equal the disaster that will befall them.

Disasters befall us. When other things take the place of God we lose our bearings and long for the created things instead of the Creator. We become our own gods and act like demigods. We turn in on ourselves and look for love and fulfilment in our own way, in relationships, places and things that can never meet our deepest needs. In the end they mean nothing, and the very effort of working for them, leaves us wounded and broken. As we head into disaster God laments, he mourns and hurts for the hurt of his poor people. Dismay takes hold of him.

God has provided all that we need to fulfil our potential and make us joyous, and he is the one who can heal us when we lose our way. He has sent his prophets and ministers to declare his word to us and call us to return to him. Our broken hearts, the wounds we carry from our own bad decisions or the way things have worked out can only find healing by turning to the broken-hearted God. There is a physician who has come to heal all our griefs and carry our burdens. The deepest lament of God came from the lips of Jesus on the cross before he died. “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” God became broken so that we can be healed. He bore our wounds, our sin in his body to bring soothing and healing to us. There is no wound that cannot find healing in the presence of Jesus. But it doesn’t just happen without hard work. People come to David with high blood pressure, stress related illnesses, depression, heart disease, broken hearts etc and they want a quick fix. But there isn’t one because good health comes from commitment to a good healthy life style. It is comprehensive and demanding and without patient compliance the outcomes are not good.

I would like to share an email I received last week with the sender’s permission. She has been broken by the way things turned out for her and as a result she lost her way. There is much to lament. She looked in many places to find a balm that would soothe the wounds that hurt so much. Now she has turned towards God and listens carefully to the things he reveals to her week by week. Things she never knew and can hardly believe. This journey has taken courage, determination, emotional energy and most of all trust. She has like the prodigal and kneels before the Father…pressing her ear to his chest desperately listening for the heartbeat of God. God’s healing isn’t a quick fix, he wants to develop a relationship of love and that takes confrontation and trust. She writes:

God is continuing to take me to places of such pain and grief.. that I was so unaware of.. tonight it was in recognising my grief in not having a father.. I know I had a father... but of not having a father that was caring, loving and kind... once again I always knew this but tonight god really highlighted the grief I always felt and I guess still do about not having a dad I could count on... I guess I’ve always said that I didn’t care cause I didn’t like my dad.. so I didn’t want him.. which was true.. I didn’t want that kind of a dad... but I desperately dreamed of having another dad.. so really there was a lot of pain there.. and grief.. and feelings of what bad luck... but in my prayer god is beginning to show me glimpses of how he considered me as a little girl... the delight he saw in me as his child... I don’t know if I can do this image justice but I will try..

I had this image of me as only about a 4 year old and God was holding my hands and joyfully dancing and waltzing around with me, with glee to beautiful orchestral ballroom dancing... and there was such joy and delight between us... and this image was God expressing to me in a really beautiful way that he loved, treasured and really cherished me... because of my family set up.. I never experienced this joy, this delight in me.. that I was special and loved... but God was showing me in a very real way.. that I could really feel.. that even though my parents didn’t feel this way... he certainly did!!!... and in this amazing way.. its like god can almost go back and slowly mend the hurt.. make up for things I didn’t get.. right the wrong in some way.. which blows me away.. so I know I can feel pain in prayer.. but this was also an amazing feeling of healing.. I think it was that in the image God made me feel treasured... and I’ve never felt like that before.. I didn’t even know you could feel that way...

You know each time in prayer I read the part in the book ‘ By the river I wept’ and I read in the first person.. it is so powerful for me.. in encouraging me to “let the child take the reigns, listen to my child who lives in my soul, pay attention to her, even if it embarrasses me (which is a big ask for the cool me).. and to remember that human wisdom is madness in Gods eyes..” and when it gets to the part about not allowing her to be scared... and that I must allow her to feel loved again.. I can hardly get through the words... I cry...but I am determined to battle on.. I know there is no other way with trust..

Is there no balm in Gilead? Why then are my poor people not healed?