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:
- 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.
- Moffat’s translation that the burning coals are a metaphor for guilt or shame
- 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:
- Self-inflicted torment,
- 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.
- 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.