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Paul, in his letter to the Romans, in a longer passage entreating his readers to love one another, quotes from Proverbs 25:21-22:

Romans 12:20 NIV

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."

What does Paul, and/or the writer of Proverbs mean exactly by the phrase "heap burning coals on his head"? Is this phrase used elsewhere in Greek or Hebrew?

It seems at first glance that it means to incite anger in the person you are doing a kindness to, and perhaps that is the meaning in Proverbs. However, Paul is here speaking about a kind of sincere pure love, where even earlier in the passage (verse 9) he says "Love must be sincere." It doesn't seem that love that would have the goal of inciting anger by means of good deeds to be very sincere. Perhaps it means that by doing them good you are adding to the eventual punishment that God will enact upon your enemy. Again, that does not sound like a very sincere kind of love.

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2 Answers 2

This web site has a couple of interesting interpretations, one of which I had heard previously. They quote Kenneth Samuel Wuest (1893-1962):

“In Bible times an oriental needed to keep his hearth fire going all the time in order to insure fire for cooking and warmth. If it went out, he had to go to a neighbour for some live coals of fire. These he would carry on his head in a container, oriental fashion, back to his home. The person who would give him some live coals would be meeting his desperate need and showing him an outstanding kindness. If he would heap the container with coals, the man would be sure of getting some home still burning. The one injured would be returning kindness for injury.”

See the web address for the additional idea(s).

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Thanks for sharing. It would be preferable to include some of the other relevant interpretations as parts of the answer here (summarize the relevant portions of the resource that answer this question), and provide the link for reference. –  Daи Apr 21 at 15:49
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Psalm 140:9-11 provides one possible answer, since there appears the same parallel of coals falling upon the head. Most English translations group verses 9-11 as one paragraph; the LXX and Masoretic Text (MT) group the entire psalm as one unit.

Psalm 140:9-11 (NASB)
9 As for the head of those who surround me,
May the mischief of their lips cover them.
10May burning coals fall upon them;
May they be cast into the fire,
Into deep pits from which they cannot rise.
11 “May a slanderer not be established in the earth;
May evil hunt the violent man speedily.

The LXX provides some slight nuance that the coals "fall upon ... the earth," which suggests to the reader that the source of the coals is heaven.

Psalm 140:9-11 (LXX)
9 [As for] the head of them that compass me,
the mischief of their lips shall cover them.
10 Coals of fire shall fall upon them on the earth;
and thou shalt cast them down in afflictions:
they shall not bear up [under them].
11 A talkative man shall not prosper on the earth:
evils shall hunt the unrighteous man to destruction.

The imprecatory prayer is that the "talkative" slanderers suffer the mischief of their own lips through divine intervention (and so to let them reap what they sowed to its maximum extent). That is, the imprecation is that from heaven burning coals would "precipitate" divine discipline, which is the imagery from the LXX. This backdrop from Psalm 140:9-11 therefore provides the perspective to understand Paul's words.

Romans 12:19-20 (NASB)
19 Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. 20 “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

The conclusion is that when we are kind to the erring individual (instead of repaying evil-for-evil), we exclude any animosity. In fact, when we pray for our enemies we protect ourselves from bitterness. In this manner, the way is now wide open for the coals from heaven to come down upon the erring individual. In the context of Psalm 140:9-11, the burning coals of discipline are that these people would reap what they sow to its maximum extent.

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