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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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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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His Kingdom Prophecy lists a couple of interesting interpretations. for example, 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 website for additional interpretations.

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1  
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. – Dan Apr 21 '14 at 15:49

In Romans 12:20, Paul quotes Prov 25:21–22 while completing his thought begun in 12:9 where he couples love with sincerity: Ἡ ἀγάπη ἀνυπόκριτος. In Greek, we have a verbal noun (love) followed by an adjective (sincerely, lit. without a mask). The structure allows Paul to describe how love ought to be done and almost has the force of an imperative, or at least an optative: Love sincerely; love must be sincere, love should be sincere. This idea, however conceived, provides the framework for what follows. Two participial phrases that modify Paul’s thought on genuine love: abhorring Evil and holding fast to Good. He brackets his thoughts with verse 21: Do not be conquered by Evil, rather overcome Evil with Good. The ages long conflict between Good and Evil impact what Paul wishes to communicate about love.

It is within this context of Love, Good and Evil that Paul’s use of Prov 25:21–22 occurs. This quote falls at the end of this thoughts and gives rise to the closing ideas concerning victory or defeat with respect to Evil. In this discourse on genuine love, the quote follows his last idea begun in 12:19. Verse 19 contains his last participial phrase modifying verse 9: Do not avenge yourself. Paul uses the quote from Proverbs in his discussion about genuine love in the context of Good and Evil to exemplify, or support his argument that one should not avenge themselves.

Before continuing, it will help to look at some of the historical interpretations of this passage. Morris in the Pilar New Testament Commentary on Romans identifies three interpretations:

  1. A traditional interpretation that references 2 Sam. 22:9, 13 = Ps. 18:8, 12; Ps. 11:6; 120:4; 140:10. This interpretation posits that the metaphor refers to divine punishment using these OT verses as context. Morris says more recent interpreters do think this fits the context of genuine love.
  2. Moffat’s translation that the burning coals are a metaphor for guilt or shame
  3. Klassen’s interpretation that takes Egyptian literature as context for the Proverb and claims that the coals are a metaphor for repentance.

He lets the reader choose between 2 & 3.

Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (The Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1988), 454.

Hendriksen and Kistemaker adds three more interpretations in his Baker New Testament Commentary:

  1. Self-inflicted torment,
  2. An act of benevolence by Ridderbos, Here, the coals are undeserved merit for someone who has allowed their home fire to go out and borrows burning coals from a neighbor the next morning. The context for this one is extremely tenuous.
  3. A gesture of sorrow for sin.

He also cites E. J. Maesselink in repeating the Klassen interpretation above. Hendriksen prefers the idea of shaming, but allows the possibility of benevolence. Hendriksen cites the contest in Romans for his choice, citing verse 21 and the idea that this choice models conquering Evil with Good.

William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (vol. 12–13; New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 423.

Hendriksen takes a more proper approach by giving priority to Romans, he just leaves out the context of verse 19 in his analysis and comes up short. Taking Egyptian literature as the context for Proverbs is difficult given other OT Wisdom literature provides a different context. Taking the contemporary customs concerning fire making as the context is difficult for an OT passage which has scriptural context. The first context that should matter is that of Romans, next the OT, next OT culture, and then NT culture since we are looking at Paul’s use of an OT passage.

Using Romans as the context, Morris cites many interpreters that use the primary idea of the passage, genuine love, as a means for dismissing the historical interpretation. This makes some sense in the contemporary Western context of the 21st century. However, this passage does not merely deal with unhypocritical love. In the context of that idea, Paul addresses how to deal with someone who has wronged a person and how the wronged person should deal with the need to set things right, or more literally, how the wronged person should seek justice for the wrong doing.

In the context of person seeking justice for a wrong doing, Paul tells the reader in verse 19 not seek justice for themselves. This follows the exhortation not to repay evil for evil, to do what most consider honorable, and to live at peace with everyone to the extent can. All of this fits well within our overriding concern about genuine love. However, this does not address the injured party’s need for justice. Paul has begun this topic of justice for injuries in 19a and continues in 19b and in the verse under discussion, verse 20.

In 19b, Paul uses the interesting phrase, δότε τόπον τῇ ὀργῇ, give plsace to anger (wrath is a nice Older English word for anger that may conjure what Paul means here). HCSB and NET both clarify the anger as God’s anger or wrath. Paul instructs the reader not to seek justice for a wrong but to leave room for God’s anger.

Building on this idea of justice and the anger of God, Paul now quotes Dt 32:35 assuring the reader that vengeance or justice belongs to God (also the source of anger). God will repay (the reader not repaying evil for evil). Next Paul cites Proverbs in verse 20. He concludes by saying that behaving in this manned allows Good to conquer Evil. The implication being that seeking personal just causes one to be conquered by Evil, closing the look on the idea presented in verse 17 as well as the larger idea of genuine love started in verse 9. In so doing, Paul addresses the idea of personal justice in the face of wrong doing.

With regards to verse 20, this verse functions in Paul’s argument to address the idea of personal justice. By transferring the responsibility of seeking justice to God, the reader allows God to exercise justice, “heap burning coals”, on the person doing wrong. By leaving vengeance to God, the reader is able to focus on ministering to the needs of the person doing wrong (genuine love) while at the same time not abandoning or ignoring the need for justice. It is interesting to note that Paul does not necessarily explicate the form this justice may assume. The metaphor of burning coals is decidedly negative. However, God may use circumstances to bring the wrong doer to repentance through any means at His disposal. God may also actually punish the wrong doer; for this, not time table is given. The important point for Paul is that whatever this form of justice takes, it is God’s responsibility and not the readers. Furthermore, Paul addresses the real human need for justice in the face of wrong doing. In all of this, Paul’s teaching shows the reader who to love in a genuine manner without ignoring his/her own needs.

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protected by Dan Aug 1 '14 at 18:31

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