burning coals, anyone?

Tell me what you know about burning coals.

Coal, as in charcoal. Flaming hot. On fire.

Now, if I were to put a burning coal on your head . . .

If I were to heap burning coals on your head . . .

What would that look like? What would that mean?

burning coals anyone

What about in this context . . .

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”

To the contrary, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Romans 12:19-21

Say what now?

I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking you.

You. Not your best devotional-commentary-Bible-study-help friend.

And not what you’ve always thought or always heard or always been told.

What do you think it means from your understanding of the Bible today?

My thoughts later. Yours now.

 [image credit: flickr.com, journeyoftheword.com]

9 thoughts on “burning coals, anyone?

  1. I see a few possibilities:

    1. That your enemy will literally and physically suffer because of your good deeds.

    2. That he will suffer terrible humiliation (metaphorically referred to as burning coals).

    3. That the coals refer to a purifying change in character which burns away the impure and leaves the person with a new character.

    Commentaries don’t usually give sufficient attention to the possibility that the statement may have been just as ambiguous to its original audience as it is to the modern reader. They tend to say either “It is X,” or “We are not sure what it means and here are some possibilities.” But they really ought to point out that the statement could have been intentionally open-ended. You have to think carefully before assuming you know what Jesus meant. Perhaps Jesus meant all three of the above possibilities, depending on the situation.

    Whichever the case may be, I’m eager to pray for my enemies. I want them to be destroyed or changed. Yes, I said that. This is true as a matter of definition, if they are indeed my enemy–for to love oneself *is* to desire the destruction of one’s enemies.

    “But doesn’t Jesus tell us to love our enemies?” some will ask.

    Yes Jesus does, many times. Perhaps we have been too quick to assume that love and hate are opposites and that they are mutually exclusive. There is a sense of the word “love” by which we are to love our enemies: the sense of chosen action. But I doubt Jesus, the one who referred to Herod as a “fox” (a heavy insult in that culture) was commanding us to *feel* positively about our enemies. Is it appropriate to call people “hypocrites” and a “brood of vipers”?


    Many Christians have a fundamental misunderstanding of love and hate from the point of view of Scripture. If a Christian finds the following verses difficult to understand, he or she needs to take some time to think more about the character of God and the concepts of love and hate:

    1 Corinthians 15:24-25
    Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet.

    Psalm 11:5
    The LORD tests the righteous,
    but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.

    Psalm 5:5-6
    The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
    you hate all evildoers.
    You destroy those who speak lies;
    the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.

    Hosea 9:15
    Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal;
    there I began to hate them.
    Because of the wickedness of their deeds
    I will drive them out of my house.
    I will love them no more;
    all their princes are rebels.

    Proverbs 6:16-19
    There are six things that the Lord hates,
    seven that are an abomination to him:
    haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
    and hands that shed innocent blood,
    a heart that devises wicked plans,
    feet that make haste to run to evil,
    a false witness who breathes out lies,
    and one who sows discord among brothers.

    Psalm 7:11
    God is a righteous judge, and a God who feels indignation every day.

    Psalm 34:16
    The face of the LORD is against those who do evil,
    to cut off the memory of them from the earth.

    Proverbs 8:13
    The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil.
    Pride and arrogance and the way of evil
    and perverted speech I hate.

    Leviticus 26:30
    And I will destroy your high places, and cut down your images, and cast your carcasses upon the carcasses of your idols; and My soul shall abhor you.

    Matthew 25:31-35
    When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in.


    1. Oops. I got mixed up on who said the verse about the burning coals. That was Paul in Romans. Jesus said something very similar in the gospels but he didn’t mention the burning coals. His emphasis was on being like the Father. It’s interesting to compare what Jesus said and what Paul said. They have the same principle in mind.


      1. Appreciate the input. I’m still trying to work through the possibilities myself, and yes, the surrounding thoughts shed a lot of light on what the phrase might be getting at. Interesting points about loving/hating your enemies. {Made me think of this article I recently wrote: https://journeyoftheword.com/2015/07/14/taunt-your-enemies/.} And such a great statement: “You have to think carefully before assuming you know what Jesus meant.” Right on.


  2. I believe it referred to when a enemies fire went out and they came to you for a coal to restart their fire. Instead of giving them one tiny almost dead coal, you would heap burning coals upon him. It referrers to the head because they would carry the coals in a dish or something above them.

    I believe that is the cultural reference, but as to the general meaning, I think it refers to loving our enemies and doing good to all men. I think is may parallel to these verses:

    Matthew 5:44
    But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you;

    Luke 6:28-30
    28 Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you.
    29 And unto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other; and him that taketh away thy cloak forbid not to take thy coat also.
    30 Give to every man that asketh of thee; and of him that taketh away thy goods ask them not again.

    Now when we pray for them, we do not pray for the success of their evil plans or the prosperity of their evil deeds. We pray for their salvation and the failure of their evil plans. We pray for the failure of their evil because we also love and care and pray for the people they would be persecuting and because the success of their evil would not be good for them anyway! It would likely only bring more judgement upon them!

    As far as the love and hate we have for enemies, there’s the old saying: We love the sinner but hate the sin. How then does those Scriptures talk about us hating? I think this passage sheds some light on it:

    Psalm 139:22
    I hate them with perfect hatred: I count them mine enemies.

    So to hate with perfect hatred means to count them as your enemies. Combine that with Luke 6:27 and Matthew 5:44, and we see how we treat enemies.

    Luke 6:27
    But I say unto you which hear, Love your enemies, do good to them which hate you,

    Makes sense to me!

    This reminds me of this:

    Matthew 18:17
    And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.

    So, such a person would have no more fellowship with the church, but then does that mean we no longer care about them or pray for them? No, of course not! We know this because of the way Jesus treated publicans and sinners!

    Matthew 9:10-12
    10 And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples.
    11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?
    12 But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.

    He did not endorse all their behavior just as we should not, but He spent time with them for the purpose of witnessing to them and helping them see the light of truth just as we should.


    1. I tried to trace the idea that “burning coals on one’s head” would be a blessing. It looks like this view was suggested by a professor at Moody Bible Institute, Kenneth Samuel Wuest (1893 – 1962). I think it was speculation, though. Other commentaries don’t mention that as a possibility, and the original use in Proverbs 25:21-22 doesn’t seem to support it. I found a discussion of the topic here, with some good points: http://www.hiskingdomprophecy.com/heaping-coals/. I noticed that the Jewish Encyclopedia didn’t mention the idea that coals would be a blessing, which seems odd, if it were a known custom. My guess is that Wuest was reaching for an explanation that would cohere with his other ideas about God’s character.


  3. I’m not sure, but that came to me years ago from a book on Bible manners and customs. I could be wrong though. Still, whatever the interpretation of that verse, the rest of the scriptures given still seem to make sense as to how we deal with enemies and hate. Thanks for the information though!


    1. Sure thing! If it’s true about giving coals being a blessing, it would make more sense out of what Paul is saying. At the same time, I think it would make less sense out of what the Proverb is saying (because in that context there was little precedent for “do unto others”). Lydia does a great job of finding passages like this! A Sunday school teacher’s worst nightmare 🙂


      1. Ooo, good point about the context in Proverbs. So, what I was gonna say about that… I’ve been observing OT quotations in NT passages. 1) They’re sometimes “quoted” differently. 2) They’re sometimes applied differently.
        So, you may be correct about the context and interpretation of the Proverbs passage (I didn’t spend much time in that passage for this article). But, I think Paul could be applying it differently in Romans, now that we’re after the cross. Article coming soon on that thought… (wrote this: https://journeyoftheword.com/2015/07/17/in-with-the-old/….but I need to take it a step further yet).


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