Posted by: SandreS | January 4, 2010

Heaping Coals of Fire: A Figure of Speech

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 “B.M. Bowen, Strange Scriptures that Perplex the Western Mind” 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
© 2008, 2010



  1. Enjoyed the blog post. Thought you might find this interesting:

    Romans 12:20 (The Mirror Translation) “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.” These acts of kindness will certainly rid your enemy of the dross in his mind and win him as a friend.

    Translation Notes
    (Proverbs 25:21,22 A refiner would melt metal in a crucible and intensify the process by heaping coals of fire on it. This is good strategy, be sensitive to the needs of your enemies. God sees gold in every person; hostility cannot hide our true value. He won us while we were hostile towards him. (See also Rom.5:8,10) His kindness led us to repentance. (Rom.2:4))


  2. I have read and I’m enlightened. Thanks!


  3. @sandres2k8z: Someone on Stack Exchange’s English Language and Usage provided a link to your devotional thought regarding “heaping coals of fire,” so I thought you should know and perhaps be encouraged thereby! By the way, I learned what they saying means from G. Christian Weiss, former “Voice of Foreign Missions” on the Back to the Bible Broadcast, and author of “Insights Into Bible Times and Customs” (Lincoln, NE: Back to the Bible Broadcast, 1972), p.68ff.


  4. I appreciate your insight.


    • Hey, Jude (I’m a child of the 60s): I’m at a loss as to what my “insight” is, as you call it. All I did was cite an apt reference, but hey, if it blessed you, who am I to say my little contribution was for naught. Blessings on you! Don


  5. Whenever I read about “heaping coals” in the bible I always stop and know in my heart it can’t mean to insight anger in my enemy….thanks for this…now I believe it means to be genuinely concerned for their eternal condition (which I think can only come from the Sprit of Christ in us) and that the “good” we do toward them might be some kind of key to them responding to God’s love and possibly saving their soul……God’s word is so powerful and deep, makes me want to cry.
    thank you Don!


  6. […] There are other passages that give us more of the “why.” “If it be possible, as much as lieth 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, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12:18-21). Heaping coals of fire on someone’s head doesn’t immediately seem like a good thing, a way of blessing; so some take this passage to mean that it has to do with letting God take vengeance (and set their heads on fire at some point, presumably). Another slightly more palatable view is that the heaping coals represent their own conscience. “Kill ’em with kindness,” so to speak, and they’ll eventually feel guilty and repent. A view I’ve heard mentioned a lot the last few years has more to do with a cultural practice, and leaves no doubt that the coal-heaping is a completely positive, non-passive-aggressive gesture, which actually does bless them in the immediate sense. A brief explanation of this practice is found here: […]


  7. Wow, so many figures of speech used in the scriptures that can only be understood by knowing their way of life during that time period. Most of the sayings portray the complete opposite meaning when taken at face value. Perceived vs. actual.. so much to learn. Thanks for this.


  8. Its an interesting idea, but is it correct?. What I would like to know is what is the evidence for this particular understanding? Where does this knowledge come from, and how do we know that this is indeed what the writer had in mind when he wrote these words? My understanding has been neither an act of vengeance or an act of blessing. My understanding has been figurative in that blessing an enemy will cause him to feel shame which can lead to repentance. I know in my early years, I can recall someone I despised, being kindly to me and the shame I felt, burning around my ears. It caused me to change my attitude. I am willing to consider this alternative explanation, but I need to know what the evidence is that shows this was the practise at the time of Solomon writing.


    • Thank you Bob for your comments. It is important to ascertain Jewish customs before grasping the meaning of many figures of speech used in Scripture. Obviously, to heap coals of fire on someone’s head is not what we literally do to those around us; therefore, it is a figure of speech. Seeing that this is not a current expression in our own society, we must find out what it meant to the reader of that day. The source for this in the article is cited as B.M. Bowen’s, Strange Scriptures that Perplex the Western Mind. Actually, “shame” and “repentance” are not even used in the context of Romans 12. The foundation is grace, not vengeance; and the divine method laid forth is not to recompense “evil for evil” (Romans 12:17), but to “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). In fact, this is the ultimate plan of God for the ages – to “overcome evil with good” – for “love never fails!” (I Corinthians 13:8). We trust that this helps to further clarify the scriptural points laid forth in the article.


  9. Yeah, I don’t think they carried hot coals on their head. That’s pretty much a death sentence in any culture. It must mean something entirely else.


    • It was the custom in those days ( in some places also today) to transport food, goods etc upon one persons head. Men and woman possesed headware that acted as a cradle and thus were able to balance the item on their heads. Hot coals were placed in a brazier and rested on the headware which insulated the head from the coals. It was common if a person was out of hot coals and wanted to start a fire for that person to go to a neighbour and ask them to supply some hot coals. The nights in the Middle East can be very cold and it was an act of love to assist a neighbour in this manner.


  10. You must study scripture against its background and timeline. Today, we start a fire with matches. They did not have those in that era, so when they returned from a trip, they put a pan of ashes on their head and filled it full of live coals of fire to return home and start fires in their hearths. Heat goes up. Scripture is clear. It is only us that make it hard to understand.


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