What is the meaning of "heap burning coals on his head"?
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, in a longer passage entreating his readers to love one another, quotes from Proverbs 25:21-22:
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.
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.
10 “May 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.
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.
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.
Paul is quoting Proverbs 25:21-22 here almost verbatim from the Septuagint:
ἐὰν οὖν πεινᾷ ὁ ἐχθρός σου ψώμιζε αὐτόν
ἐὰν διψᾷ πότιζε αὐτόν
τοῦτο γὰρ ποιῶν ἄνθρακας πυρὸς σωρεύσεις ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ
Proverbs 25:21-22 LXX
ἐὰν πεινᾷ ὁ ἐχθρός σου τρέφε αὐτόν
ἐὰν διψᾷ πότιζε αὐτόν
τοῦτο γὰρ ποιῶν ἄνθρακας πυρὸς σωρεύσεις ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ
ὁ δὲ κύριος ἀνταποδώσει σοι ἀγαθά.
The King James version of the Proverb is:
If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink;
For so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee with good.
The theme here is not revenge, but repentance. A contemporary Orthodox commentator, Dmitry Royster, explains the passage:
"in so doing," that is, if one acts in accordance with this principle, he "will heap coals of fire upon his enemy's head," a proverbial expression: in this context, it means "put to shame," or "make one painfully conscious of his guilt." It is found also in Psalm 139/140:101, where it denotes God's own retribution on those, Saul and his followers, who were persecuting David in order to kill him, even though he had dealt in a godly way with Saul.2
The Psalm reads:
7O God the Lord, the strength of my salvation, Thou hast covered my head in the day of battle.
8Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked: Further not his wicked device; Lest they exalt themselves.
9As for the head of those that compass me about, Let the mischief of their own lips cover them.
10Let burning coals fall upon them: Let them be cast into the fire; Into deep pits, that they rise not up again.
Archbishop Dmitry continues:
The hope implied by the expression in our present verse is that the enemy's realization of his wrongdoing might lead him to repentance. For it is unthinkable that the man who feeds him and gives him to drink would do these acts of kindness for the purpose of revenge, that is, to see his enemy in spiritual, mental, or physical torment.3
1. Psalm 139 in the Septuagint (from which Paul quotes), Psalm 140 in the Masoretic Text
2. St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Pastoral Commentary (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 2008), p.328
Short answer: The burning coals are the vengeance that God has promised to hurl down upon Jerusalem for all of the sins of the Jews since Sinai. By "turning the other cheek" the believer "leaves room" for divine wrath:
[Jude 1:7-9 ESV] (7) just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire. (8) Yet in like manner these people also, relying on their dreams, defile the flesh, reject authority, and blaspheme the glorious ones. (9) But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, "The Lord rebuke you."
In Rome, the Jews and gentiles who believe are being persecuted by the unbelieving Jews. The new covenant saints are being persecuted by the old covenant saints:
[Gal 4:21-31 ESV] (21) Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? (22) For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. (23) But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. (24) Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. (25) Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. (26) But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. (27) For it is written, "Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband." (28) Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. (29) But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. (30) But what does the Scripture say? "Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman." (31) So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
God is in many ways a lot like Google:
- he searches the heart, the kidneys, the lungs, your sitting down and standing up, your eating and drinking, and all things
- he stores up everything you say or do on his servers in the "cloud" including your texts, your tears, your emails, the schemes you make as you lie in bed, your words, your deeds
- he appoints a day of visitation
God told Israel long ago that he was going to store up the judgment for their sins:
[Deu 32:34-35 NLT] (34) "The LORD says, 'Am I not storing up these things, sealing them away in my treasury? (35) I will take revenge; I will pay them back. In due time their feet will slip. Their day of disaster will arrive, and their destiny will overtake them.'
[Deu 32:34-35 LXX] (34) οὐκ ἰδοὺ ταῦτα συνῆκται παρ᾽ ἐμοὶ καὶ ἐσφράγισται ἐν τοῗς θησαυροῗς μου (35) ἐν ἡμέρᾳ ἐκδικήσεως ἀνταποδώσω ἐν καιρῷ ὅταν σφαλῇ ὁ ποὺς αὐτῶν ὅτι ἐγγὺς ἡμέρα ἀπωλείας αὐτῶν καὶ πάρεστιν ἕτοιμα ὑμῗν
So way back in Deuteronomy 32 God announced a day of vengeance upon which he would pour out wrath. John the Baptist, Jesus and the apostles all announced that that day was imminent - at the doors:
[Luk 3:7-9 KJV] (7) Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? (8) Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. (9) And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire.
[Luk 21:22 NKJV] (22) "For these are the days of vengeance, that all things which are written may be fulfilled.
Jesus said that God was going to send the Jews prophets specifically for the purpose of their being rejected in order to and finally put an end to the offensive earthly city:
[Mat 23:31-38 ESV] (31) Thus you witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. (32) Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers. (33) You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (34) Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, (35) so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (36) Truly, I say to you, all these things will come upon this generation. (37) "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (38) See, your house is left to you desolate.
So Jesus is consigning natural old covenant Jerusalem to a fate in the pattern of Sodom:
[Jude 1:7 ESV] (7) just as Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.
However, this time the fire will come through Rome as they burn the sinful city.
Hence, "burning coals".
In support of this non-redemptive view I cite Paul's own words:
[Rom 2:4-5 NLT] (4) Don't you see how wonderfully kind, tolerant, and patient God is with you? Does this mean nothing to you? Can't you see that his kindness is intended to turn you from your sin? (5) But because you are stubborn and refuse to turn from your sin, you are storing up terrible punishment for yourself. For a day of anger is coming, when God's righteous judgment will be revealed.
So Paul is saying that by "turning the other cheek" the one who persecutes you is adding to the reasons and to the severity of the wrath that will fall upon your persecutors. In this way one "heaps up coals upon their head". IE: coals on your head is not a good thing but a bad thing:
[Psa 140:10 ESV] (10) Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise!
[Pro 25:22 ESV] (22) for you will heap burning coals on his head, and [IE: "but"] the LORD will reward you.
The idea is that rather than respond to evil with evil, respond with goodness so that your enemy will be punished severely for mistreating you while you will be rewarded by God:
[Rom 12:17-21 NET] (17) Do not repay anyone evil for evil; consider what is good before all people. (18) If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all people. (19) Do not avenge yourselves, dear friends, but give place to God's wrath, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay," says the Lord. (20) Rather, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in doing this you will be heaping burning coals on his head. (21) Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
[Rom 12:17-21 MGNT] (17) μηδενὶ κακὸν ἀντὶ κακοῦ ἀποδιδόντες προνοούμενοι καλὰ ἐνώπιον πάντων ἀνθρώπων (18) εἰ δυνατόν τὸ ἐξ ὑμῶν μετὰ πάντων ἀνθρώπων εἰρηνεύοντες (19) μὴ ἑαυτοὺς ἐκδικοῦντες ἀγαπητοί ἀλλὰ δότε τόπον τῇ ὀργῇ γέγραπται γάρ ἐμοὶ ἐκδίκησις ἐγὼ ἀνταποδώσω λέγει κύριος (20) ἀλλὰ ἐὰν πεινᾷ ὁ ἐχθρός σου ψώμιζε αὐτόν ἐὰν διψᾷ πότιζε αὐτόν τοῦτο γὰρ ποιῶν ἄνθρακας πυρὸς σωρεύσεις ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ (21) μὴ νικῶ ὑπὸ τοῦ κακοῦ ἀλλὰ νίκα ἐν τῷ ἀγαθῷ τὸ κακόν
However, Peter does see a possibility for redemption coming out of it when the sinner beholds, as it were, in the saints, the suffering of Christ:
[1Pe 2:18-25 NLT] (18) You who are slaves must accept the authority of your masters with all respect. Do what they tell you--not only if they are kind and reasonable, but even if they are cruel. (19) For God is pleased with you when you do what you know is right and patiently endure unfair treatment. (20) Of course, you get no credit for being patient if you are beaten for doing wrong. But if you suffer for doing good and endure it patiently, God is pleased with you. (21) For God called you to do good, even if it means suffering, just as Christ suffered for you. He is your example, and you must follow in his steps. (22) He never sinned, nor ever deceived anyone. (23) He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly. (24) He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. (25) Once you were like sheep who wandered away. But now you have turned to your Shepherd, the Guardian of your souls.
[2Ti 2:24-26 NKJV] (24) And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, (25) **in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, (26) and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.
If you want to get back at your enemies then do them good. You will suffer innocently and God will reward you and vindicate you, pouring wrath on your enemies.
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.