What does take a balm in Gilead mean? By Jack Kettler
In this study, taking the “balm” of Gilead will be considered.
“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.” (Jeremiah 46:11)
Many have heard the old Negro spiritual, “There Is A Balm in Gilead.” So, it is noteworthy that a seemingly obscure passage in Jeremiah became the basis for a song.
It is recorded in Genesis about “balm” and Gilead:
“And as they sat down to eat a meal, they looked up and saw a caravan of Ishmaelites coming from Gilead. Their camels were carrying spices, balm, and myrrh on their way down to Egypt.” (Genesis 37:25)
As seen in Genesis, balm was an item of trade. Arabia was the source of balm.
From the Strong’s Lexicon, it is learned:
Noun - masculine singular
Strong's Hebrew 6875: 1) a kind of balsam, balm, salve 1a) as merchandise 1b) as medicine”
From Strong’s, it appears that “balm” is a salve used as medicine. Balm, or balsam, was a topical mixture for wounds, as seen in Jeremiah 8:22.
From the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, it is learned:
“11. balm] See Jeremiah 8:22, and Jeremiah 30:13.
Egyptian knowledge of medicine is celebrated by Homer (Od. 4:229). Cyrus and Darius were both sent to Egypt as medical men (Herod. III. 1, 132); cp. Pliny XIX. 5.” (1)
Who is the “Virgin daughter of Egypt?”
Regarding this question, the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary says:
“11. Gilead … balm — (See on  Jer 8:22); namely, for curing the wounds; but no medicine will avail, so desperate shall be the slaughter.
virgin—Egypt is so called on account of her effeminate luxury, and as having never yet been brought under foreign yoke.
thou shalt not be cured—literally, “there shall be no cure for thee” (Jer 30:13; Eze 30:21). Not that the kingdom of Egypt should cease to exist, but it should not recover its former strength; the blow should be irretrievable.” (2)
Jeremiah is giving a prophecy against Egypt in verse 11. So also, “balm” would not be a comfort in the coming judgment.
The reader can see this from Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers:
“(11) Go up into Gilead, and take balm . . .—The words have the tone of a triumphant irony. The “balm of Gilead” was looked on as a cure for all wounds (Jeremiah 8:22; Jeremiah 51:8), but the wounds which Egypt received at Carchemish would be found incurable. It proved, in fact, to be a blow from which the old Egyptian monarchy never recovered. In the “virgin, the daughter of Egypt”—virgin, as being till then, as it boasted, unconquered (Isaiah 23:12)—we have a like touch of sarcasm. The report of the defeat and the utter rout and confused flight that followed (Jeremiah 46:12) would spread far and wide among the nations.” (3)
Now, a summary of “balm” from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia:
bam (tseri, tsori; Septuagint rhetine):
The name of an odoriferous resin said to be brought from Gilead by Ishmaelite Arabs on their way to Egypt (Genesis 37:25). It is translated “balm” in the King James Version and the Revised Version (British and American), but is called “mastic,” the Revised Version, margin. In Genesis 43:11 it is one of the gifts sent by Jacob to Joseph, and in Ezekiel 27:17 it is named as one of the exports from Judea to Tyre. The prophet Jeremiah refers figuratively to its medicinal properties as an application to wounds and as a sedative (Jeremiah 8:22; 46:11; 51:8). The name is derived from a root signifying "to leak," and is applied to it as being an exudation. There is a sticky, honeylike gum resin prepared at the present day at Jericho, extracted from the Balanites Aegyptiaca grown in the Ghor, and sold to travelers in small tin boxes as “Balm of Gilead,” but it is improbable that this is the real tscori and it has no medicinal value. The material to which the classic authors applied the name is that known as Mecca balsam, which is still imported into Egypt from Arabia, as it was in early times. This is the exudation from the Balsamodendron opobalsamum, a native of southern Arabia and Abyssinia. The tree is small, ragged-looking and with a yellowish bark like that of a plane tree, and the exudation is said to be gathered from its smaller branches. At the present day it grows nowhere in Palestine. Dr. Post and other botanists have sought for it on the Ghor and in Gilead, and have not found it, and there is no trace of it in the neighborhood of Jericho, which Pliny says is its only habitat. Strabo describes it as growing by the Sea of Galilee, as well as at Jericho, but both these and other ancient writers give inconsistent and incorrect descriptions of the tree evidently at second hand. We learn from Theophrastus that many of the spices of the farther East reached the Mediterranean shore through Palestine, being brought by Arab caravans which would traverse the indefinitely bounded tract East of Jordan to which the name Gilead is given, and it was probably thus that the balm received its local name. Mecca balsam is an orange-yellow, treacly fluid, mildly irritating to the skin, possibly a weak local stimulant and antiseptic, but of very little remedial value.” - Alex. Macalister (4)
Jesus is the “balm of Gilead” for sinners. When J. C. Philpot preached on Jeremiah, he explained that God’s grace is always greater than our sin:
“There is more in the balm to heal than there is in guilt to wound; for there is more in grace to save than there is in sin to destroy.” - J.C. Philpot (5)
Thus, it can be said that the Balm of Gilead is a symbol of Christ's healing power in the life of a believer.
“Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15)
1. Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges, by A. W. Streane, Jeremiah, (Cambridge University Press, 1898), e-Sword version.
2. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, Commentary on the Whole Bible, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Zondervan, 1977) p. 649.
3. Charles John Ellicott, Bible Commentary for English Readers, Jeremiah, Vol. 5, (London, England, Cassell and Company), p. 147.
4. Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor, “Entry for 'BALM,'” International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, reprinted 1986), p. 381.
5. J. C. Philpot, Preached on “Balm of Gilead” Tuesday Evening, 27th July 1852, at Eden Street Chapel, Hampstead Road.
Mr. Kettler has previously published articles in the Chalcedon Report and Contra Mundum. He and his wife Marea attend the Westminster, CO, RPCNA Church. Mr. Kettler is the author of books defending the Reformed Faith. Books can be ordered online at www. Jack Kettler .com