a heap of good

Why do I get myself into these things? My first thought as I sit down to tackle the problem of “burning coals.”

This is one of those “act before you think” moments. Let’s see, I’ll ask a question {click here for the original post}. I’ll do some study on my own. I’ll consider my readers’ thoughts. Then I’ll come up with a great, profound answer.

Except when you don’t have a great, profound answer. Like today.

But then, when you ask a question, you have to answer it . . .

heap of good

First, the passage in question. {Direct quote, with my comments in brackets.}

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.”
{When an enemy comes against you, don’t take matters into your own hands. Leave it up to the perfect Judge. The wrath isn’t ours to use.}

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.”
{Instead of acting in wrath, feed your hungry enemy. That’s one example of how to pile up burning coals on his head.}

Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.
{The point. Why you heap up burning coals. And why Paul is talking about it.}

Romans 12:19-21 (quote within from Proverbs 25:21-22)

From this passage, what are some things we know about heaping burning coals on your enemy’s head? {State the obvious.}

Heaping burning coals on your enemy’s head is . . .

  1. What happens when you feed him or quench his thirst {to name a few examples}.
  2. How you overcome evil with good, which is the point.
  3. A good thing.
  4. Something we should do, while acting in wrath is not.

Put it together: By feeding a hungry enemy or quenching his thirst, we overcome evil with good, and this is what God has instructed us to do.

So what about the heap of coals burning on their head?

Well, so far, we can nix a few interpretations {thanks to those who commented for the great list of ideas!}

  1. Harm. Not unless you’re gonna feed them hot sauce. And, problem: bringing them physical harm is not considered a good thing to do.
  2. Humiliation. That wouldn’t be a “good” response either. Besides, is it possible to humiliate a thirsty person by giving them water?
    {Note: “Humiliation” is the interpretation I’ve heard most often and thus assumed.}

By further observation, we can nix a few more interpretations.

  1. Healing. There’s the thought {random in context, if you ask me} that piling burning coals on someone’s head could represent some kind of purification {note Isaiah 6:6}. Cleansing. Forgiveness. Healing. But is this something God would ask us to do?
  2. Help. We have the idea that coals would be needed for a fire. Your enemy’s fire goes out? You not only hand them a coal to help them get their fire started . . . you heap up the coals for them.
    On their head? Okay, so maybe you heap them up in a bucket that they carry on their head.
    Burning coals? I suppose the coals would have to be burning already in order to start someone else’s fire. Seems a little strange, but let’s say that works.
    So, the proverb goes, “If your enemy is hungry, give him something to eat. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. By doing this, you heap burning coals into a bucket on his head so that he can start his fire again.”
    I’m not buying it.

“Harm” and “humiliation” are out of the question, because those aren’t good things. God says to do something good in return.

“Healing” and “help” are not very logical as far as I can see.

So, finally, my answer.

My answer is, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what it means to “heap burning coals on my enemy’s head.”

Not exactly, anyway. I know some things it does mean. And I know some things it does not mean.

And I’m thinking that if I do my best to feed my hungry enemy {and other such similar things}, I may end up heaping burning coals on his head. And that’s a good thing. It won’t harm him. It might help him {and thus it might humble him}.

At any rate, I will be overcoming evil with good.

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

6 thoughts on “a heap of good

  1. Another piece of the puzzle: can it ever be “good” to harm one’s enemies?

    For example, when Jesus stands on the heads of those he conquers, will this be “good”? If so, then we have a broader concept of what is good and pleasing to God.

    What is good for God and his people is not good for God’s enemies. This means we cannot necessarily rule out the possibility that the right thing to do is to harm an enemy.

    Could it be as simple as this: as Christians when we do good deeds toward evil people it actually harms them, and this is what God wants?

    It would be similar to the way several prophets (especially Jeremiah) were sent to preach to those who would not listen, as a sign against them and a way to increase their condemnation. God knew they wouldn’t repent, but that wasn’t God’s plan.

    For Christians this principle is still in effect in some cases and not in others. I think shame, destruction, purification, and help are all potential outcomes when we do good toward evil people.


    1. It’s definitely a valid point. However, in our Romans passage, he defines the good. “If your enemy is hungry, feed him.” Not “if your enemy is hungry, hurt him, or make him feel bad for what he did, or cause him to repent,” though some of those things may result. But it seems to me that the “good” here is truly a “good,” rather than what could also be seen as a form of retaliation, or evil, or wrath…which Paul says is God’s job in the matter.

      Maybe think of it this way…if harm (for example) comes to our enemy, it’s God’s “fault.” If harm comes to them because of our good actions (feed a hungry enemy), then it’s still God’s fault, because God told us to feed a hungry enemy.

      We aim at overcoming evil with good. If God determines that harm, humiliation, etc., is good for that enemy, we let him take care of that (and he may use our “good” actions to bring it about).

      By the way…
      1. I think there is a difference between God’s “right” and ours. Just because God has the “right” to harm our enemies, doesn’t mean we do.
      2. I think there is a difference between the response to enemies given in the OT (pre-cross) and the response given in the NT (post-cross). And we are post-cross, so OT responses should be “applied” differently.


  2. Yes, God is a just God giving a chance to repent even to those He knows will not repent so that no-one goes to hell because they never had a chance. They have no excuse. They rejected. I can’t say that giving them a fair chance if doing them harm in any way. Yes, it will be a witness against them just as Jeremiah’s preaching was to be, but it isn’t the preaching that does them harm. It is their rejection of the truth being preached.

    Yes, doing good to an enemy might humble him, but that’s not bad or harmful.

    The cultural reference of giving coals to start a fire still makes sense to me, but truly knowing the exact meaning isn’t needed in order to get the main point as Lydia shows. I think the main point is as posted in this post: Don’t be wrathful, but do good to your enemy therefore overcoming evil with good.


    1. The cultural reference of giving coals to start a fire makes sense to me, too. But not in the context of this passage. When I paraphrase the Romans passage out loud, replacing the burning coals phrase with the cultural description you gave, it doesn’t make sense to me that that is what Paul is referring to.

      Just wanted to clarify that.


  3. I agree paraphrasing at least in that way it does make it sound strangely worded to our modern and English thinking. Not sure it matters as to if that’s the reference or not, but it does indeed sound strangely worded when paraphrased like that. Still regardless of the meaning or reference of that phrase, I think we at least got the main idea which is perhaps more important here 🙂


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