Coals Of Fire

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It is written:

Romans 12:17-21-Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18  If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19  Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. 20  Therefore “IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM; IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP COALS OF FIRE ON HIS HEAD.” 21  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Here, the Apostle Paul commands Christians not to pursue personal revenge in their lives against their enemies. He is adamant that we are to do good to our enemies. This was in keeping with the teaching of the Old Testament and Jesus:

Exodus 23:4-5-If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. 5  If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it.

In this passage, even if a person is inclined to not help his enemy’s beast, God commands them to do the merciful thing.

Leviticus 19:18-You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.

Notice in this passage who the “neighbor”is that the Hebrew was to love: it would be one who you would be tempted to take vengeance against, or have a grudge against. In other words, the command to “love your neighbor as yourself” tells us who our neighbor it: our enemy!

When Jesus was correcting the Pharisees twisting of the Old Testament Scripture to justify their traditions (which actually contradicted what the Scripture said), He shows us that the Old Testament had taught all along that we are to learn to love our enemies:

Matthew 5:43-45-You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ 44  But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, 45  that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

It is here that we need to investigate what Paul meant by his statement regarding “coals of fire.” Through the years, there have been two interpretations of this passage.

One interpretation states that Paul is saying that we should do good to our enemies because that will cause God to punish them more on the Day of Judgment as they keep doing us harm in the face of our goodness towards them.

Another interpretation is that God is telling us to do good to our enemies in the hopes that they will feel ashamed and repent and become our friend.

Let’s study.

First, the context of this passage seems to argue against the idea that a person is seeking personal retribution for their enemies in any form. Paul had just specified that we are not to repay evil for evil (Romans 12:17), and he wants us to not be overcome with evil, but to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21). Furthermore, he had been making the case throughout the entire Book that God has treated His enemies with unparalleled kindness (Romans 3:19-31; 4:4-8). This is especially interesting when we consider that Paul had been talking about how God’s anger is displayed against the wickedness of mankind (Romans 1:18-32). Paul is wanting us to learn kindness and compassion in the way that God demonstrates, and God had responded to the wickedness of mankind by being good and sending His Son to demonstrate His love (Romans 5:8).

Second, the passage that Paul is quoting from in Proverbs goes like this:

Proverbs 25:21-22-If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; 22  For so you will heap coals of fire on his head, And the LORD will reward you.

Paul omits the last part of this passage in his quotation in Romans. The Jewish Targums (ancient rabbinical commentaries on Scripture) demonstrated how the Jewish people before the time of Christ understood this idea of heaping coals of fire on someone’s head:

“for in so doing, thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head; not to do him hurt, not to aggravate his condemnation, as if this would be a means of bringing down the wrath of God the more fiercely on him, which is a sense given by some; as if this would be an inducement to the saints to do such acts of kindness; which is just the reverse of the spirit and temper of mind the apostle is here cultivating; but rather the sense is, that by so doing, his conscience would be stung with a sense of former injuries done to his benefactor, and he be filled with shame on account of them, and be brought to repentance for them, and to love the person he before hated, and be careful of doing him any wrong for the future; all which may be considered as a prevailing motive to God’s people to act the generous part they are here moved to: in the passage referred to, Prov 25:21, “bread” and “water” are mentioned as to be given, which include all the necessaries of life: and it is added for encouragement, “and the Lord shall reward thee”. The sense given of this passage by some of the Jewish commentators on it agrees with what has been observed in some measure; says one (p) of them, “when he remembers the food and drink thou hast given him, thou shall burn him, as if thou puttest coals upon his head to burn him, רע לך מעשות וישמור, and “he will take care of doing thee any ill”;” that is, for the time to come: and another of them observes (q) that “this matter will be hard unto him, as if thou heapest coals on his head to burn him, בשתו מרוב, “because of the greatness of his shame”, on account of the good that he shall receive from thee, for the evil which he hath rendered to thee.”” (John Gill, Gill’s Bible Commentary, 306059-306072 (Kindle Edition); Washington, DC: OSNOVA)

Dunn provides more insights along these lines:

“But a more positive sense is probable. (1) Such a negative tone (do good to your enemy so that his punishment will be all the more severe) fits ill with the context: the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount breathes through these verses (cf. Dodd, Schmidt) with a consistent call to open-handed goodness and generous response unmotivated by malice—vv 14, 17, 19, 21. In particular the ἀλλά sets v 20 in some contrast to the idea of leaving the enemy to God’s judgment; to read the contrast as “Leave your enemy to God, but try to increase his guilt by your acts of kindness” strikes a jarring note. And it hardly fits comfortably either with the positive thrust of v 20a–b (cf. 2 Kgs 6: 22) or with the final call to “overcome evil by good” (Furnish, Love Command, 108). As already noted, therefore, the ἀλλά is best taken as calling for a positive response to hostility (by meeting it with acts of kindness) and not simply as a passive response (leave it to God). (2) The suggestion of Morenz that the original imagery of Prov 25: 22 can gain illumination from an Egyptian repentance ritual, in which carrying coals of fire (in a dish) on the head was evidence of the genuineness of repentance, has gained a good deal of support in recent years (see particularly Käsemann, Michel, Cranfield). It is of course not necessary to suppose that Paul knew of such a ceremony. Since so much of Proverbs is derived from or shared with Egyptian wisdom (see, e.g., W. McKane, Proverbs [London: SCM, 1970] 51–150) it may be sufficient that the original awareness that something positive was meant by the metaphor was transmitted with the metaphor itself (otherwise, Stendahl, “Hate,” 352). (3) Here too the Targum of Prov 25: 21–22 is probably important since it adds: “. . . on his head and God will hand him over to you” or “will make him your friend” (Str-B, 3: 302), that is, “you will win him” in a missionary sense (TDNT 7: 1095 n. 5). This seems to confirm that this particular metaphor (“ put coals of fire on someone’s head”) was recognized as a positive and beneficial act.” (D.G. Dunn, Romans 9-16, Volume 38B (Word Biblical Commentary), 750-751 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan)

Both Gill and Dunn inform us that the imagery of “burning coals” as a picture of doing good to your enemies to try and bring them to repentance was well-known in the ancient world, and that the Jewish people considered this a logical interpretation of the passage in Proverbs 25 during Paul’s day.

Third, the imagery of burning coals seems to be drawn from Egypt where a person would show his contrition and repentance by carrying trays of burning coals on his head.

“Some scholars have traced the metaphor to an Egyptian practice of carrying a tray of burning coals on one’s head as a sign of contrition; see esp. S. Morenz, “Feurige Kohlen auf dem Haupt,” in Religion und Geschichte der alten Agypten. Gesammelte Aufsätze (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus, 1975), pp. 433–44. For other suggestions for the origin of the metaphor as a reference to shame, see J. E. Yonge, “Heaping Coals of Fire on the Head,” The Expositor, series 3, vol. 2 (1885), 158–59; A. T. Fryer, “Coals of Fire,” ExpTim 36 (1924–25), 478; J. Steele, “Heaping Coals of Fire on the Head (Pr. xxv.22; Ro. xii.20),” ExpTim 44 (1932), 141.” (Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 940 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

When we add up all of these things, we see that the imagery of “coals of fire” was an simply another extension of the Savior’s teaching of putting love into action-even to our enemies!

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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