“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.” (Prov. 25:21,22)
Paul quotes this verse from proverbs in Romans 12:19,20 saying, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves but rather give place to wrath for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine I will repay’, saith the Lord. Therefore if your enemy hungers feed him, if he thirst give him a drink for in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head. Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.”
There are differences of opinion as to what ‘heaping coals of fire’ on someone’s head means.
I was taught that treating my enemy with kindness would somehow allow God to pronounce just punishment on the evil doer.
Some tell of an eastern custom that in the morning those who had let their fire go out in the night would run through the streets with a clay pot on their head and neighbours would fill it with burning coals for them to restart their fire.
Others tell of an Egyptian custom of people demonstrating their repentance by putting coals of fire on their head.
Yet others insist that neither of these claimed ancient customs have any validity, and are in fact untrue.
But we do not need to guess at the meaning or search out ancient customs when we can find the true meaning simply by searching the pages of scripture.
The first reference to burning coals of fire is found in Leviticus 16 when God instructed Moses on the rituals concerning the altar. To makes atonement for the people Aaron was to take a censer full of burning coals of fire from the altar and bring it before the Lord in the holy of holies , then sprinkle the coals with incense causing a cloud to rise up and cover the mercy seat in the holy of holies.
The burning coals of fire had to do with the sacrifice for sin and forgiveness.
This is confirmed in Isaiah 6:5 where Isaiah, when he sees the Lord, recognizes his sinful condition and cries out…“Woe is me for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips…” In response to his cry an angel flies to him having in his hand a coal of fire from the altar. The angel touches Isaiah’s mouth with it and declares that his “iniquity is taken away and his sin purged”.
Burning coals of fire have the purpose of cleansing from sin.
Therefore, to heap burning coals of fire on someone’s head is to bring them to repentance so that their sin may be forgiven.
When someone sins against us, it is not vengeance we are to seek but rather seek to ‘overcome evil' with good deeds that will make our enemy ashamed and burn his conscience, filling him with ‘godly sorrow that leads to repentance and salvation’. (II Cor. 7:10)
My parents and forefathers came from one of the Mennonite villages in the Ukraine.
There was a time where they lived in terror, never knowing when their lives would be in danger. They were at the mercy of bandits and marauding gangs who raided and killed at will with no authorities to stop them.
In one of these Mennonite villages, a man and his family were asleep in their beds one night when the father awoke to the sounds of someone on his roof.
Slipping outside in the dark, he found his fears confirmed.
Several young men were tearing his house apart.
He calmly went back inside and called his wife to prepare a meal.
When the table was set and the food prepared he went outside and called to the young men who had torn a good part of his roof off the house.
“You have worked hard. You must be hungry. Please come inside and partake of some refreshments.”
Hesitantly, the men came into the house and sat down at the table.
The man of the house calmly bowed his head and thanked the Lord for the food and asked him to bless those that sat around the table.
After the prayer, he filled the men’s plates and encouraged them to eat.
They picked up their forks and started to eat… but after a few minutes, without a word, got up from the table and went back outside.
The sounds resumed on the roof.
But this time their intent was different. They worked until they had restored all the damage they had done and then quietly left.
The kindness of the gentle godly couple had heaped coals of fire on their heads that burned repentance into their souls.
When someone insults us, or offends us in some way is our first reaction to want to retaliate - to strike back, to wish that they get what they deserve?
Or is our heart concern for their soul, and our desire to react in such a way as to bring them to feel sorrow and regret for their actions?
Do we yearn for them to be forgiven before God?
I remember a time I was put to shame by the example of my granddaughter.
Shortly after she started her kindergarten year, she began to tell me about a girl in her class named Danielle.
This girl was mean tempered, angry and had no friends.
Elise, who wanted everyone to be her friend could not understand why this girl was so difficult. She tried and tried to be her friend, to no avail.
Elise would tell me, "Nanna, we have to pray for Danielle."
And she herself would pray for her every day.
One day Elise was again telling me about Danielle and struggling to define her problem asked me, "What do you call it, when she, when she..." I understood what she meant and gave her the words, "has a broken spirit?"
"Yes, yes, that's it, " Elise said.
Always after that she asked me to pray for Danielle's broken spirit.
Elise would make Danielle cards and think of ways to be nice to her - she even asked to go shopping to buy Danielle a really nice present, which she choose with great care. But all of her efforts went unrewarded and Elise agonized all year over this child that rejected all her kind gestures.
Not once did Elise take her meaness personally, the meaner Danielle was the greater Elise's concern for her and the greater her struggle to understand her.
There were times when Elise was hopeful that finally her efforts were paying off but then they would be dashed once more.
The year ended with Danielle still being mean and angry. The coals of fire did not produce the desired result.
But I still think of her and hope that perhaps one day she will remember the little girl in kindergarten that would not give up being kind to her.
Watching Elise's childlike purity of heart and motives gave meaning to God's words, "A little child shall lead them". (Is. 11:6)