Heaping Burning Coals on the Head of your Enemy

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.

In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Many have made attempts to unveil the mystery of Romans 12:20, but often leave more confusion on the road behind them. Paul writes, “On the contrary: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.’” Some readers may have difficulty with this statement because it sounds spiteful, but the context, as we will see, suggests an alternative meaning. However, it is difficult to understand “heaping coals on the head of your enemy” to be a kind gesture. We will carefully look both at what Paul is trying to say and at the proverb he is citing.

            There are three interpretations of the end of Romans 12, which we will discuss in just a moment, but they all come to the same conclusion. Paul writes a few paragraphs concerning love in action particularly toward one’s enemies (Rom 12:9–21). To understand verse 20, we must keep in mind the constructive and uplifting approach Paul uses. To this point, Richard A. Batey speaks of actions that aim toward harmony with one another, and adds: “to be a friend of sinners is to work actively in their best interest.”[1] In this passage, Paul advises his readers to “bless those who persecute you” (v. 14); “do not repay anyone evil for evil” (v. 17); to “not take revenge” (v. 19); and “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (v. 21). Paul’s instructions aim not at spite but at love.

            The first interpretation of Romans 12:20—and the one I favor least—is that Christians should reserve vengeance for God. In other words, Paul is telling his readers to leave the fate of their enemies in the hands of God. Similarly, when David prays, “May burning coals fall on them; may they be thrown into the fire, into miry pits, never to rise” (Psa 140:10), he is leaving his enemies in the hands of God just as he did in previous times with Saul (1 Sam 24; 26). This interpretation fits some of the language of Romans 12, where we are to pay attention to our own actions while loving others and leaving judgment to God. But Romans 12 is not speaking of a passive action [ELG1] of letting God do something. I believe the desire of Paul was not merely to leave one’s enemies in the hands of God and his vengeance, but to seek their best interest in action.

            The second view is not often encountered today. In many cultures still today, people transport  items on their head, whether a bucket of water, or some food or other items. In Antiquity, someone might even carry on the head a pot with hot coals for the fire. At that time, the only means to heat and cook in the home was the use of fire or burning coals. Someone who ran out of hot coals might come to your home and ask for some. A loving Christian would heap those hot coals in the pot on his head. In essence, the Christian would provide even an enemy what he needs simply because it is the good thing to do. This interpretation does reflect the unconditional love Paul is advocating, but I believe a third option gives us the fullest view of Paul’s heart.

            The best interpretation of this passage gives careful consideration to the context in Romans and the verses Paul cites: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (Prov 25:21-22). What does this proverb mean? As Lois Tverberg suggests, the context of the proverb will help determine Paul’s meaning. Consider the previous verse of Proverbs 25; “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Prov 25:20). Tverberg points to the natural uneasiness brought to an enemy while doing good and the “emotional discomfort an enemy will feel when you waken his conscience about his conduct toward you.”[2] Instead of retaliating, we should act in love toward our enemy and surrender him to God and his own conscience. As David Lipscomb added, “leave [him] to his own conscience and to God to punish for the wrong.”[3] But not to his demise; you surrender him to his conscience and to God for the sake of peace and harmony. Batey reminds us of Romans 5:10 when he says, “the harmony and peace which love pursues extends to one’s enemies. God’s love has accepted man while he was an enemy.”[4] We are to love our enemies and treat them kindly as God loved us and treated us kindly. Batey concludes, “What the original meaning of this figure of speech was has been lost, but Paul suggests that the enemy will burn with shame for his abuse of one who loves him.”[5] But to what end? To what end do we desire to heap coals upon the head of our enemy and hope his conscience is pricked? Is it just for us to be at peace with him? Romans 2:4 reminds us that “God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance.” We know from 2 Peter 3:9 that God desires everyone to repent. Our actions, whatever they may be, must be to lead a person to this same end.

            A careful reading of Romans 12:9–21 will show that Paul is urging the people to love actively and pray for their enemies; no sort of evil intent toward one’s enemy is warranted. We do have enemies who may need punishment, but that fact ought not to change our behavior nor is their punishment to be our concern. We are to leave any injustices to God and seek to be at peace with our enemies as much as it is in our power; we are to strive to give to our enemies what is in their best interest. Paul is speaking of a selfless love to those who do not deserve it but need it. Paul is speaking about an active love that, if administered, will change lives. Paul is speaking of the Love of God being displayed through us toward our enemies as it was first displayed through himself to us.

[1] Richard A. Batey, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, LW 7 (Austin, TX: Sweet, 1969), 155.

[2] Lois Tverberg, “Heaping Burning Coals?” http://www.egrc.net/articles/Rock/Puzzling_Passages/BurningCoals.html

[3] David Lipscomb, Romans vol. 1, A Commentary on the New Testament Epistles (Nashville: Gospel Advocate Company, 1950), 232.

[4] Batey, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, 155-156.

[5] Batey, The Letter of Paul to the Romans, 157.