God and prophet express intense sorrow over the Babylonian onslaught that the people of Israel are having to experience. The balm that is available in Gilead cannot provide healing for them; only God can do that.
The identification of the speaker in these verses is difficult. Is it God or Prophet who condemned Judah's infidelity to God, warned of Babylonian conquest, and promised a new covenant or both? Many interpreters have had difficulty ascribing such emotional language to God, but God does express such lament-filled emotions elsewhere in Jeremiah (for example, 9:10-19). It is best to understand that the speaker is Jeremiah, but he is reflecting the feelings of God about the matter that have been conveyed to him. The lamenting prophet embodies the words of the lamenting God (see also 4:19-21; 10:19-20; 13:17-19; 14:17-18). God and prophet are deeply affected by the disaster that Israel is going through in the Babylonian onslaught.
Into the midst of the sharp expression of these emotions comes the question: Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Gilead, a region in the Transjordan, was an area known for its healing resources; balm is a resin from the balsam tree that was applied to wounds (46:11; 51:8). These questions are rhetorical: yes, there is balm in Gilead; yes, there are physicians there. But, it is implied, they are powerless to restore health to a patient with this kind of illness. The answer to the question “Why?” (8:22b) pertains to the nature of the sickness: no conventional healing methods are available for what ails Israel. It will become evident in Jeremiah 30:17 and 33:6 that only God can provide healing for Israel. This verse is familiar from its use in the spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead.” This song assumes an actual answer to the questions, namely, that Christ is the “Gilead” where balm can be found (or, Gilead is the goal of the Christian where life will be restored to wholeness).
The intensity of the grief on the part of God (and prophet) is taken up again in 9:1. There are no proper means to express the depth of those feelings–tears cannot flow enough to truly express the grief. In the repeated reference to divine grieving, readers are given a glimpse into the heart of the one who brings judgment. The God who brings judgment does so with an intense sorrow.