Rev. Kuiper is pastor of Southeast Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Balm was an ancient ointment or salve made from the resin of certain pine trees. Sometimes this resin was mixed with honey to produce an ointment of considerable medicinal value. The Old Testament several times speaks of the balm of Gilead because it was especially from the trees that abounded in Gilead, east of Jordan, that this balm was manufactured. It is also likely that people went to Gilead to be treated by physicians who were skilled in the application of this salve. The balm of Gilead was already well known at the time of Joseph, for his brothers sold him to some Ishmaelites who came from Gilead with spicery, balm, and myrrh, carrying it to Egypt (Gen. 37:25). Jacob commands Judah to take some balm, honey, and spices to Joseph, the ruler in Egypt, when he returns with Benjamin (Gen. 43:11). God warns Egypt that no balm of Gilead, or any medicine, shall cure her in the day of the Lord’s vengeance (Jer. 46:11); nor would it do Babylon any good (Jer. 51:8). Balm was included in the merchandise of many trading nations (Ezek. 27:17). Only a few references to balm are made in Scripture, but the idea of healing various diseases is very prominent. We are interested in the figurative use that is made of the balm of Gilead.
Just before Judah is brought into captivity for her unfaithfulness to God, Jeremiah asks in astonishment, “Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? Why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?” (Jer. 8:22). Judah is sick unto death. There is no soundness in her, “but wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores: they have not been closed, neither bound up, neither mollified with ointment” (Isaiah 1:6). By including the little word “then” in his third question above, Jeremiah indicates that the answer to his questions is yes. There is a balm in Gilead and there is a physician who attends to the health of his people.
This great Physician is Jesus Christ our Lord. He is the Sun of righteousness who arises with healing in His wings (Mal. 4:2). The balm that He uses is the gospel of salvation which is in Him alone, working repentance towards God and faith in Himself. The balm is the Spirit of Christ, who applies the preaching of the gospel, rubbing it deep into the wounds of sin, healing the brokenhearted ones (Ps. 146:3;Is. 61:1). There is no wound or bruise that the Comforter cannot bind up and heal. But for Judah there was not this balm because they held fast to deceit, they refused to return, no man repented of his wickedness. From the prophet even unto the priest, every one dealt falsely. “For they have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace” (Jer. 8:11).
It is in this light that we must consider the many miracles of healing performed by the prophets, Jesus, and the apostles. Each kind of disease spoke of some aspect of sin and its terrible power from which Jesus is Savior and over which Jesus is Master. When He healed the blind He showed that He is able to open the eyes of the spiritually blind to see the things of the kingdom of heaven. When He healed the lame He showed that in Him is the power to walk in the way of God’s commandments. When He opened the ears of the deaf, He unstopped our spiritual ears that we might hear the Word of God to our salvation. In the healing of lepers is to be found the wonder of grace whereby the sinner is cleansed from the corruption and pollution of sin. And when He raised the dead He shows that He is able to raise the spiritually dead into immortality and life, both at our regeneration and in the day of His coming. The miracles of Jesus were not performed merely to deliver people from earthly pain and affliction. If that were all that Jesus did, He would be no better than the false prophets who healed the wounds of the people slightly. Jesus did not concern Himself with the outward manifestations of sin, but He went to the cause of it! He healed thoroughly. He makes whole those who are ravaged by sin and brought down to death.
Is there balm in Gilead for you? Is there a physician who is able to heal all your spiritual diseases, and even bring you from death to life? There is for all those who truly repent of their sins, who look in faith to the cross of Jesus Christ, and who find in the gospel the prescription for their healing. When we come to church to hear the gospel proclaimed by those who are anointed to preach good tidings, we are sitting in the waiting room of the great Physician. And as we wait for the sermon to begin we pray for the wonderful work of the Spirit, that he will take the balm of the gospel and rub it deep into all our wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores, binding them up, softening them with ointment. That is what we mean when we pray, “Father, apply Thy word unto us.” And we are healed, renewed, encouraged that we may walk worthy of our callings, in the way of God’s good commandments.