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Burning coals on his head or love for enemies?


Posted 09 Oct 2017

Proverbs 25v22 - Heap burning coals on head of enemy 980x706px col
Bible Cartoon: Proverbs 25v22 – Heap burning coals on head of enemy


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Bible Cartoon: Proverbs 25v22 – Heap burning coals on head of enemy

I’ve sometimes wondered how we reconcile Jesus’ New Testament command to love our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 6:27-36) with the Proverb “heap burning coals on your enemies head” (Proverbs 25:21-22). If you read the Proverb in terms of using your kind acts to make your enemy feel bad about his own behaviour towards you, then it sounds more like low-level revenge than kindness! So how do we reconcile these two ideas?

I read a Word for Today (W4T) daily devotional the other day that answers that seeming contradiction rather neatly. It all comes down to our understanding of what “heap burning coals on your enemies head” actually means. Here’s the entire W4T devotional to explain, the key bit is in the 2nd paragraph…

“It’s not enough to simply leave your enemies alone; you must demonstrate God’s love towards them. ‘If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the LORD will reward you’ (vv. 21-22 NKJV). What does it mean to ‘heap coals of fire on his head’?

Charles Swindoll explains that in ancient days, homes were heated and meals were fixed on a small portable stove, somewhat like our outside barbecue grills. Frequently, a person would run low on hot coals and need to replenish his or her supply. The container was commonly carried on the head. So, as the individual passed beneath second-storey windows, thoughtful people who had extra hot coals in their possession would reach out the window and place them in the container atop their head. Thanks to the thoughtful generosity of a few folks, they would arrive at the site with a pile of burning coals on their head, and a ready-made fire for cooking and keeping warm. ‘Heaping burning coals on someone’s head’ came to be a popular expression for a spontaneous and courteous act one person would voluntarily do for another.

When you treat an enemy this way, the Bible promises, ‘The LORD will reward you.’ You have a choice. You can experience the short-term satisfaction of retaliating and get into trouble with God for doing it, or show mercy and kindness and be rewarded by God for doing it. So, the word for you today is – treat your enemy with kindness.” – Word for Today, 03/Oct/2017

So, as you can see, the idea of “heaping burning coals on your enemies head” is not a reference to getting revenge, or getting even, or even making him suffer. It isn’t about doing good to your enemy so that he feels bad & reforms his behaviour towards you either! It is all about genuine acts of thoughtful kindness, ie loving your enemy, regardless of how you have been treated. “heaping burning coals on your enemies head” is all about genuine acts of kindness towards him, regardless of how he has behaved towards you.

Now I can see that Jesus’ commandment & Proverbs are not contradictory at all!


Bible Reference

Proverbs 25:21-22 New International Version (NIV)

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.


Matthew 5:43-48 New International Version (NIV)

Love for Enemies
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.


Luke 6:27-36 New International Version (NIV)

Love for Enemies
27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.



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