Now, about the actual phrase “heap coals of fire on his head,” what does this actually mean? We are told that this is a Jewish figure of speech that has, for the most part, been lost to the western mind:
Paul says that if we give food and drink to our enemies, we shall be heaping “coals of fire on their heads.” To us this doesn’t sound like forgiveness, but like taking vengeance.
In the Bible lands almost everything is carried on the head – water jars, baskets of fruit, vegetables, fish or any other article. Those carrying the burden rarely touch it with the hands, and they walk through crowded streets and lanes with perfect ease. In many homes the only fire they have is kept in a brazier, which they use for simple cooking as well as for warmth. They plan to always keep it burning. If it should go out, some member of the family will take the brazier to a neighbor’s house to borrow fire.
Then she will lift the brazier to her head and start for home. If her neighbor is a generous woman, she will heap the brazier full of coals. To feed an enemy and give him drink was like heaping the empty brazier with live coals – which meant food, warmth and almost life itself to the person or home needing it, and was the symbol of finest generosity. – B.M. Bowen, Strange Scriptures that Perplex the Western Mind
We, Westerners, usually picture vengeance when we think of pouring hot coals on someone’s heads. The Semites pictured something completely different … We, Westerners, must break some of our traditions, if we are to ever come to a deep understanding of the God of the Bible. It is full of beautiful pictures like this one. – Gary Amirault, Tentmaker
The phrase “heap coals of fire on his head” is a part of the quote from Proverbs 25:21-22. Farrar Fenton’s (1903) translation of the passage in Proverbs takes the phrase “heap coals of fire on his head” in its literal meaning, thus explaining the Jewish figure of speech, rather than translating it: And a fire besides for his needs.
Although popular translations of this entire passage may often lead readers to a “punishment” view toward mankind, we have actually been instructed not to recompense “evil for evil” (Romans 12:17), but to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). This is the divine plan of the ages – “overcome evil with good” – for “love never fails!” (I Corinthians 13:8).
Jesus instructed His disciples to love their enemies and be a blessing to them:
But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them who curse you, do good to them who hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you, and persecute you (Matthew 5:44).
On what basis did He do so? Because this is the very nature of the Father!
Be therefore perfect, even as your Father Who is in heaven is perfect (Matthew 5:48).
“God is love” (I John 4:8, 16), and His love has been “shed abroad in our hearts” (Romans 5:5), that we may “walk in love” (Ephesians 5:2), so that as the Father’s “vessels of mercy” (Romans 9:23) we would be a “blessing” to those around us:
Love your enemies, bless them who curse you, do good to them who hate you … (Matthew 5:44).
Bless them who persecute you: bless, and curse not (Romans 12:14).
Being reviled, we bless (I Corinthians 4:12).
See that none render evil for evil unto any man; but ever follow that which is good, both among yourselves, and to all men (I Thessalonians 5:15).
Not rendering evil for evil, or railing for railing: but contrariwise blessing (I Peter 3:9).
This is our “high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14)!
Clyde L. Pilkington, Jr.
Bible Student’s Notebook
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