Hot Coals!

I didn’t expect yesterday’s devotional about “charcoal” to generate much discussion, but I was surprised. I concluded the article with a reference to Romans 12:20.
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” (Romans 12:20, ESV).
Paul is quoting from Proverbs 25:21 – 22. The “coals” are probably charcoal, but what does the apostle mean? I often find it helpful to refer to the United Bible Societies’ helps for translators’ series of books. The focus of these commentaries is to aid scholars who are translating the Bible into different languages.
The imagery of the last clause in this verse is difficult, though all translations seem to prefer to retain the imagery rather than to change the metaphor into a non-metaphor. For by doing this you will heap burning coals on his head is perhaps best taken in the sense of “for by doing this you will make him ashamed.”[1]
What is especially interesting is how Paul doesn’t quote the entire verse from Proverbs. He leaves off the last phrase.
“… for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you” (Proverbs 25:22).
The apostle isn’t trying to motivate Christians to earn God’s reward by treating their enemies kindly. Instead, as Jewett and Kotansky explain:
There is a new motivation in a love ethic resting on God’s love for the undeserving, developed in earlier sections of Romans. There is no guarantee that giving food and drink will necessarily make a friend out of an enemy or that such actions will always produce the conversion of enemies, thus freeing them from the prospect of divine wrath; it is particularly unlikely that Paul hopes such deeds will increase the inevitability of wrath against those who refuse to respond positively. The actions of kindness to enemies flow from the transformed community (12:1–2), set right by the power of the gospel concerning God’s love for the ungodly. This involves being motivated by “genuine love” (12:9), and is consistent with “hospitality to strangers” (12:13). This verse therefore illustrates what might be involved in being “at peace with all persons” (12:18*)[2]
In other words, kindness is the best revenge. Invite them for barbeque!

[1] Newman, B. M., & Nida, E. A. (1973). A handbook on Paul’s letter to the Romans (p. 243). New York: United Bible Societies.
[2] Jewett, R., & Kotansky, R. D. (2006). Romans: A commentary. (E. J. Epp, Ed.) (p. 778). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press.

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