Posted by: SandreS | January 3, 2010

Heaping Coals of Fire

Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it is possible, as much as lies in you, live peaceably with all men. Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore if your enemy hungers, feed him; if he thirsts, give him drink: for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:17-21).

It is so amazing how our negative view of God flavors our reading of the Scriptures. It leads us to assume that the phrase “heap coals of fire on his head” is to be viewed in a negative light. We have been lead to do so by religious teaching. Rome used such passages as this to carry out their Inquisitions and burnings at the stake. Many Protestant commentators have promoted their own negative view as well:

Coals of fire are doubtless emblematical of pain … Burning coals heaped on a man’s head would be expressive of intense agony. So the apostle says that the effect of doing good to an enemy would be to produce pain. – Albert Barnes (1798-1870), Barnes’ Notes on the Bible

By coals of fire heaped upon the head, others understand a sin-punishing fire. Thou shalt heap coals of fire, that is, the fire of divine vengeance, upon his head, by making his malice and hatred against thee more inexcusable. – William Burkitt (1650-1703), Burkitt’s Expository Notes

Bring down the greater vengeance from God upon him. – Matthew Poole (1624-1679), Poole’s Commentary on the Holy Bible

We need to ask ourselves, What does this passage really means in light of all that we know about the Father – of His ultimate victory in bringing all things into harmony with Himself, and using us as His vessels of mercy?

What would be the natural purpose of “coals of fire”? For instance, if I was to have “coals of fire” in my own home, would I do so for a negative purpose, or for a positive one? Would my purpose be for punishment? For shame? For destruction? To produce guilt? To produce pain? No, of course not. A wise man would use “coals of fire” in his home for none of these reasons.

No, a wise man would use “coals of fire” to warm his home. Why should we think any different about its use here? Is not our life of goodness and kindness designed by the Father to “warm up” those with whom we share His life? He uses us as instruments of kindness to warm the coldness, and melt the hardness of their hearts.

Adam Clarke (1760-1832), wrote fittingly regarding this passage,

“Thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head” – not to consume, but to melt him into kindness; a metaphor taken from smelting metallic ores. – Adam Clarke Commentary

Here is what another has written regarding the true nature of this passage:

An enemy in distress, instead of calling for hate and vengeance, is a special opportunity for the display of God’s grace. The “morsel,” a special portion of food with which a host favored an honored guest, was a token of esteem and consideration. Mercy might provide an enemy with food, but grace accompanies the gift with every mark of love and honor. This is the way in which God vanquished our enmity, hence we should do likewise. – A.E. Knoch (1874-1965), Concordant Commentary (1968)

Speaking to the broader theme of the passage, others have written,

Does this rob God of anything? Not even of revenge, for if bread to the hungry be the divine method of heaping coals of fire, so does God Himself revenge Himself upon His enemies by loving them! – Alan Burns (?-1929), Is It of God?

He tells us to pour coals of fire on our enemies’ heads. Those coals of fire are love! (Romans 12:20) – Gary Amirault, Tentmaker

Clyde L. Pilkington, Jr.
Bible Student’s Notebook
© 2008, 2010

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