Dear friends, never take revenge. Leave that to the righteous anger of God. For the Scriptures say, “I will take revenge; I will pay them back,” says the LORD. Instead, “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.Romans 12:19-21
Paul is continuing the thought “bless those who persecute you”. Here he says never take revenge. Leave it to the Lord. Instead if your enemy is hungry, feed him. If your enemy is thirsty give him a drink. That makes sense in the light of what Paul has said before about blessing them and not cursing them. But hard to do. It needs God’s help to do this stuff. Only real men can do it. But then comes a rather puzzling statement about “heaping coals on their head”. Well I would have thought that was outside the realm of blessing and not cursing Paul. It seems to me more like cursing than blessing. What is going on here? Why would Paul say this and furthermore why would we want to do it?
Where does Paul get this thought from? It is not his own. He has clipped it word for word from the Proverbs.
Singing cheerful songs to a person with a heavy heart is like taking someone’s coat in cold weather or pouring vinegar in a wound. If your enemies are hungry, give them food to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink. You will heap burning coals of shame on their heads, and the LORD will reward you.Proverbs 25:20-22
Note the poetic nature of the language: taking someone’s coat on a cold day and pouring vinegar on a wound. Not nice things to do; similar to heaping coals on their head. Darn right spiteful actually. Notice too the last verse in the chapter. A person without self-control is like a city with broken-down walls. Prov 25:28 Isn’t that what it is all about? That is the focus that Paul seems to have over all.
In an idiomatic sense the Hebrew figure of “coals of fire” is common as a symbol of divine punishment. There is a link to shame of burning cheeks and the pain of a burning head.
- The Arabians call things which cause very acute mental pain, burning
- coals of the heart and fire in the liver. (Thayer, “Lexicon”)
- Oh some may want to literally heap coals on their enemies head but that is not what Paul means.
What are the possible interpretations of this statement “heaping coal on their head”?
- To increase your enemy’s guilt and ultimate punishment
- To add to his shame by your kindness.
- To win your enemy over and hasten his repentance through your actions.
Note there are two steps: the first to not be overcome by evil and desire for revenge. Second to overcome evil and the desire for revenge by doing good.
He who overcomes his desire to seek revenge with good is pleasing to the Lord. To allow for there to be any hint of revenge in the process of doing good negates the doing of good. So help yourself by doing good. Allow the doing of good to cover the need for revenge and ultimately win your enemy to the Lord. After that is what it is all about.
If you don’t release those who have hurt you, you will begin to resemble them.Ian Vail
Love enemies, visit prisons, sacrifice income, help orphans & widows, witness to all. lay down your life DAILY. Then we’ll listen.Anon
Jesus took time to heal the ear of the enemy arresting him! Would I? Are you too busy / angry to help an enemy bleeding today?Ian Vail