Proverbs 25:22 instructs us to heap burning coals on the heads of our enemies.
But what does that mean?
Initially, this sounds like a terrible thing to do, but this strange command is in the context of giving bread to our enemies when they are hungry and water to our enemies when they are thirsty.
Pastors and other Bible teachers have noticed this connection, and many have gone into great hermeneutical contortions trying to explain how it would be a good think to light your enemy’s head on fire.
I even heard one pastor say that when we were kind to our enemies, but they refused to repent and become a Christian, this would only increase their suffering in hell.
Isn’t that nice?
Aside from the troubling idea that anybody who is not a Christian is our enemy (!!!), what sort of person only serves others so that their future suffering in hell will intensify?!
This is probably an extreme Christian view (I hope so anyway), but most commentaries I have read on this text interpret the burning coals in some sort of figurative way so that it refers to something along the lines of the convicting work of the Holy Spirit, or a searing of the mind with the truth of God’s Word, or bringing upon your enemy a red face of shame, or something like that. Regardless, most Christian teachers believe that heaping coals on the head of your enemy refers to some kind of pain or punishment inflicted upon your enemy.
A while back I decided to study Proverbs 25:21-22 for myself.
Proverbs 25:22 and Burning Coals
As it turns out, heaping coals on someone’s head is not figurative after all. And it is definitely not talking about hell or anything negative.
To the contrary, the statement about heaping burning coals on the heads of our enemies is parallel to the statements about blessing our enemies with food and water. When this Proverb was written, people heated their homes and cooked with fire. But sometimes, a person’s fire would go out during the night, and before they could cook their breakfast, they had to go to a neighbor’s house to get a coal so they could relight their fire.
So Proverbs 25:22 teaches that if the fire of your enemy goes out, and they come asking for a coal to relight their fire, instead of turning them away or giving just one, we should be be extravagantly generous. How? We must keep one coal for yourself, and give all the rest of the burning coals to our enemy.
One commentary that gets it right is the Bible Knowledge Commentary on Proverbs. It says this:
Sometimes a person’s fire went out and he needed to borrow some live coals to restart his fire. Giving a person coals in a pan to carry home “on his head” was a neighborly, kind act; it made friends, not enemies.
Proverbs 25:22 instructs us to give our enemy so many burning coals they have to carry them the way burdens are carried in the Middle East: in a container on the head. Then they can go back and immediately bake their bread without having to wait for the wood to become suitable coals for cooking.
This is quite different than setting someone’s head on fire.
This understanding of the burning coals makes more sense, doesn’t it? Yes, and especially in light of Jesus’ instruction in the Sermon on the Mount to bless our enemies and pray for them. Jesus points that God sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous and the sun to shine on the evil and the good and we should do the same (Matt 5:45). And of course, this is exactly how Paul used the passage about burning coals in Romans 12:20-21, where he concludes by saying, “overcome evil with good.”
This reminds me of how Abraham Lincoln responded when asked why he did not seek to destroy his enemies, but showed them leniency instead. He said, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
We are to Love Our Enemies
God does not want us to be nice to my enemies so that their judgment will be worse in the end. That is not love. He wants us to show love and kindness to our enemies simply because our enemies are people too and God loves them just as much as He loves us. Though our enemies may never turn to Jesus as a result of our kindness, we are to love them just the same.
This post is part of the February Synchroblog where bloggers were invited to write about the topic of loving our enemies. Here is a list of the other contributors. Go check out what they had to say on the topic!
- Todi Adu – Love is War, War in Love
- Todi Adu – Love is Your Weapon; Fight for Love
- Carol Kuniholm – Circles of Love
- K. W. Leslie – Love Your Enemies
- Doreen A Mannion – Easy to Love
- Liz Dyer – Uncomfortable Love
- Mike Donahoe – Love Your Enemies Really
- EmKay Anderson – On Loving While Angry
- Glenn Hager – The Opposite of Love is Not Hate
- Josie Anna – On Love Because I am Loved
- Edwin Aldrich – Loving All of Our Neighbors
I remember hearing that Proverb compared to the story in Judges where Samson tied torches to the tails of three hundred foxes and set them loose in the fields of the Philistines to set the fields afire. Ah yes. The Bible supports retaliating against our enemies. The Samson story and this Proverb prove it. Right?
Hmmm. Apparently, what “Scripture plainly says” isn’t always so plain. Understanding the time in which something was written, the cultural background, how a contemporary of the writer would have understood the writing, and even understanding the meaning of the words in the language in which they were written can shed a lot of light on Scripture. Sometimes, as in this case, the passage may mean the exact opposite of what we think it means.
You might consider writing additional posts on similar passages, not necessarily those where people love to wrangle over various theological interpretations, but passages similar to this one, passages that seem to say something much different than what they really say.
Jeremy Myers says
That’s a great idea. It has been a goal of mine to do just that for several years now, but I keep getting sidetracked with other topics. Such as this violence of God in light of Jesus idea…. Sigh. That project is consuming me… I am thinking of dumping the whole project though, because I’ve hit a brick wall on it…
melanie Calow says
I’ve just come across your explanation today (4 years on!) & been blessed by better understanding of the original culture the proverb originated from.. I don’t know what your project was 4 years ago, our whether you completed or dumped it, but I hope you are encouraged that once your posts are “out here” on the ‘net, they are available for others to find thru searches when we feel confused by a seemingly contradictory passage. God bless you richly Jeremy, thank you so much for blessing me…now the proof will be shown as I do share my “coals”
Samson tied torches to the tails of three hundred foxes and set them loose in the fields of the Philistines to set the fields afire. Ah yes. The Bible supports retaliating against our enemies. The Samson story and this Proverb prove it. Right?
I did not think that God prove retaliation…( by our own hand anyway) In the case of Samson tied torches to the tails of three hundred foxes and set them loose in the fields of the Philistines to set the fields afire, I did not see that God told Samson to do that…so, God does not contradict with Jesus regarding treat the enemy…:)
That paragraph is using what might be referred to as irony (using language that normally signifies the opposite) to emphasize that the Bible, neither in the story of Samson nor in the Proverb Jeremy writes about, does not support retaliating against our enemies. Jesus clearly tells us to love our enemies. The point is, in both these instances, some people think they have found proof that the Bible approves of retaliating against our enemies (destroying the enemies’ property in the one instance, or supposedly harming the enemy in the other), but that is not what the Bible is saying.
Don’t forget that Samson was a judge. He was there to bring judgment on the enemies of God’s people. This is one of the reasons why God gave him his powers. His powers were used to protect his people and to punish those who oppressed them.
I’ve never heard it explained that way before. Interesting!
And I posted about loving your enemies yesterday. I had no idea that was the thing to do. LOL
Jeremy Myers says
Glad it helped. Did you add a link to your post over at the synchroblog site?
I hadn’t, but I will. Thanks!
Carol Kuniholm says
I have heard all kinds of troubling interpretations. Yours is the first one that really rings true. Thanks so much!
Jeremy Myers says
Glad it helps! It fits the context much better as well, and looks more like Jesus.
Shawn Trumbo says
If you truly love those who hate you they are in fact storing up wrath for themselves. That being said if you only “love” your enemies to heap coals of fire on their heads you are not loving your enemies and are indeed heaping coals upon your own head. You are not the one that is heaping anything on anyone they are really doing it to themselves by persisting in their hatred but even more so when they hate those who love them in truth.
Jeremy Myers says
What do you mean by “wrath”? It is a word used in Scripture, but different people mean different things by it. I don’t think it has anything to do with “hell.”
Well, I’m certainly a number of months behind in this input. I learned the following similar meaning of this portion of Scripture a few years back from the works of Bishop K.C. Pillai (The Orientalisms of the Bible). His explanation has a slightly different angle, but brings the same heart of understanding:
“Romans 12: 20 — ‘Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.’ To us this verse sounds like it might be some sort of revenge to take on your enemies. Dumping hot coals on someone’s head sounds pretty serious, but in Eastern life it meant something quite different. In the village, not all households were equipped to start a fire in the morning. A woman who had a flint would start a fire, and she would place hot coals on a shard of pottery. Her young son would take the pottery and place it on his head, then go from house to house in the village, sharing the coals so everyone could have a fire. On those cold mornings, the boy was warmed by the coals he carried on his head. This verse is telling us that our actions towards our enemies should ‘warm them’ and is stressed more clearly in the next verse.
Romans 12: 21 — Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
Jeremy Myers says
Wow. Thanks for sharing that. Is that a book you mentioned? It sounds good.
As far as I know his books are no longer in print, but I have seen second hand copies advertised on Amazon. Here is a start up place should you want to look for the extracts that are available on the Internet, which is what I have been using. The material really contains some eye-opening explanations that just make strange portions of Scripture come alive, for example giving your son a stone when he asks for bread, Israel’s receiving double for their sins, fishing for money, the lukewarm Laedocia.
Beautiful. I have just been so blessed by both this and the original that Jeremy wrote. Can’t thank you, and the Holy Spirit who lead me to this article, enough. I have been trying to figure out a way to convince people to to change their thoughts about retaliation towards others by using the this passage in the same mis-interpreted fashion. Although I operate out of love I felt a little unsure about the approach I was going to use, and discovered what it was through reading both of your writings … God’s love is even deeper than I had been allowing myself to admit. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you for writing this four years ago.
I have a question about proverbs and have not seen this covered on your website. I tried to send this in an email, but the message app in your “about me” section was not working, it would not send my message. So this is the most relevant page I could find. (Apologies in advance)
“trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding”
Here’s something this verse has me tripped up on: in proverbs wisdom
And understanding is spoken highly of, Solomon himself was very wise. How are we to get an understanding of God’s word if we are not to rely on our own understanding? How can I interpret scripture and theology if I can’t rely on my own understanding? Perhaps I am overthinking, but it seems confusing that we are told not to rely
On our own understanding while making sure we understand God’s word is critical.
Thanks for your time,
I don’t think the verse is referring to our understanding of the Bible or theology, or that we shouldn’t rely on our ability to think or make judgments at all about Scripture.
Rather, I believe that verse is saying that when our understanding of or ability to judge a particular situation doesn’t line up with what God has to say about the issue (e.g. in His Word), we should surrender and trust Him, rather than our own understanding of the situation and how everything will work out. That’s why it says in verse 6 that “in all your ways submit to Him, and He will direct your paths”.
For example, we may be going through some stuff and cannot, in our understanding, comprehend how anything good can come out of it. But we should still trust that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to His purpose”.
Hope it helps 🙂
Michael Zerbel says
Peace (aka God) is a pre-requisite for understanding (in the linear experience of time). Out of nothing (aka God) comes everything, including understanding. In other words, it;s the meditative and surrender stance that supplies everything. It’s the sense of being a separate person, supported BY the illusion that understanding will heal or bring peace, that is a never ending treadmill. When that is dropped (surrendered or even rationally inquried into) then, aha!, understanding comes naturally, without effort. Understanding is no different than money or any other worldly goals – it is not necessary. But when that is accepted, it like all things serve Good. Because you (with the veil of the separate person mirage dropped) IS Good!
I lived in Africa for several years, and have interacted with remote African villagers in several countries (Nigeria, Chad, DRCongo, Rwanda, Burundi). They may indeed occasionally carry a load of charcoal on their heads, but never “burning coals”! I think someone is spinning a yarn in order to get Romans and Proverbs to sound rosy when it is not.
And yes, “wrath” usually does mean “hell”.
Instead of listening to people spinning yarns about remote villages no one has visited, why not look at how people in the Bible handle things:
– The martyrs under the altar in heaven pray for God to avenge them (remember, there is no sin in heaven, so their prayer is sinless) . God tells them to wait till the number of martyrs is complete Rev 6:9-11
– In the Seventh Seal, an angel gets burning coals from that altar (representing the prayers of the martyrs) and hurls the burning coals down to the earth. Presumably it’s landing on their heads (Rev 8:3-5)
– The burning coals represent a number of “trumpets” of judgments and disasters that punish the people on the earth (Rev 8:7ff)
– When all is said and done, an Angel calls for the people of God to rejoice over the destruction of Babylon, because vengeance has been served:
[+]Rejoice over [fallen Babylon], O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!” (Revelation 18:20)
[+]After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” Once more they cried out, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” (Revelation 19:1-3)
So let’s revisit Rom 12 again:
[+]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.” 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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21 )
In other words – don’t take vengeance into your own hands (like Samson did). Let God take care of it. If they repent, you’ll have won a friend and a Brother. If they don’t repent, God will take care of them. He’s promised to do so. (Gen 12:3)
James Carlson says
What an overread of this verse. By the time all of these scholars and pastors and know-it-alls are done peering beyond the veil into what every jot and tittle “supposedly meant,” we have completely different renditions. “In the greek” something meant one thing and “in Hebrew” it meant this other thing, and “according to customs at the time” it meant yet another thing. Get over it. There’s enough in the Bible, simply in what it PLAINLY MEANS, to work on every day for the rest of your life. When in doubt, just go back to working on “Love your neighbor as yourself and love your God with all your heart soul mind and strength.” Unless, of course, something in Greek or Hebrew or customs at the time tell you this is not a worthwhile focus.
Jeremy Myers says
So do you read the Bible in Greek or Hebrew? Because if not, then you can be very glad that there are scholars and pastors who study and research Greek and Hebrew, because they are the only reason you are able to read a Bible in English so that you can supposedly believe what it “plainly means.”
Sam Riviera says
Yes, I remember going to the churches and listening to the “Bible teachers” who loved talking about what the Bible plainly means. Well, that might sometimes sort of make sense if it had all been written by one person a few years ago in English. But the most recently written books were written nearly two thousand years ago, and parts were written long before that. None of it was written in English.
Translating the oldest and most reliable manuscripts of any part of the Bible into English is often not nearly as simple as the “the word in the original language” = “this English word.” If it were that simple, why would we have so many translations of the Bible, and why is it that they are not the same?
I remember the story of the college English literature professor who explained to his class the meaning of a particular selection of contemporary prose. A student disagreed. The professor corrected him. The student wrote the author, who was still alive. The author responded. Guess what? The author confirmed that the student was correct. The professor decided in the future that he would use only selections from deceased writers, so that he could not be proven wrong.
We can’t consult with those who wrote any of the books of the Bible. Sometimes there is scant evidence to know what some words, phrases or even stories meant when they were written thousands of years ago. So we try to figure it out. If you know what it says, then as Jesus said, do it.
Michael Zerbel says
Thanks, love this stuff, what a wonderful service this was. I read a book with other research like this, that I highly enjoyed. You guys must know each other!, but in case not, it’s Paul Penley, “Reenacting the Way (of Jesus)”.
Love (those that THINK they are) your enemies! That THINKING (that still exists even in “me”) will be healed by identifying with the love/forgiveness space, no “sides” remaining.
By doing something good for your enemy, you’re doing something good for your enemy? No I don’t think so. It clearly has to do with the pricking of their conscience which certainly carries with it some discomfort.
Jeremy Myers says
That is indeed how many read it and teach it. I just don’t think the historical and cultural contexts support that view.
Betty randle says
Wondered about this scripture for a long time because at first it looked like a contradiction to what God was teaching but…. then I read a very good explanation of it. It has to do with in either Grecian or Roman times that in order to be forgiven. of your sins one had to run before their gods. carrying a large tray of burning coals .. it was almost Impossible to do unless someone would help them heap the hot coals upon the tray held over their head. Therefore you are the same as praying for your enemy that he will be forgiven as Jesus said forgive them father for they know not what they do.
David Johnson says
Thanks for this commentary. Just had a sermon at our church on Rom 12:20 “burning coals” so was interested to read this and all the other comments above.
This certainly helps my understanding of the passage and how I should live in response. It’s interesting how all the other interpretations don’t do away with feeding and watering and providing for our enemies. The real difference in the interpretations is about why we are generous and feed and water them.
a) to show the generosity of our God through our actions,
b) to bring about a repentance, or
c) to make their judgement more intense?
Seems like this might be part of the answer. In any event, be extremely generous!
Javier Gonzalez says
Is there a legitimate source that can be sited on the culture of carrying burning coals or placing burning coals on your head for warmth?
Jack G. says
If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; if he runs out of hot coals, give him some to carry on his head.
If this Scripture said this, then you would be correct. However, the entire theme of this passage is all about revenge and how NOT TO TAKE revenge yourself because that would be evil. Read the WHOLE PASSAGE.
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 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.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Do not be overcome by evil, means do not be overcome by evil and take revenge.
This Scripture is not talking about how to win over your enemy to Christ. This is talking to the Christian who is so angry that he really wants to get revenge. But he MUST NOT DO THAT!
“Let God TAKE REVENGE.” That is the very clear message of this Scripture.
This very small passage talks 6 times about REVENGE— from start to finish.
Jack G. says
Furthermore, for the phrase: “you will heap burning coals upon his head” to mean that you should give your enemy burning coals to carry on his head does not make sense for this very important reason. If you heaped burning coals upon or into a container upon on his head (just your interpretation) you could easily drop one on his body. In which case, the person could be badly burned. You are really trying to contort this phrase by adding something to it which is clearly not there. You would never heap coals upon someone’s head. You would heap them into a container. That explanation is not logical. Not at all. I understand that you want this to mean something nice, but your explanation does not make sense.
Jack G. says
Do you think that your enemy would come over to your house and ask for some coal? That would be highly unlikely. But let’s say that this actually happened. Now for your scenario to be plausible, then he would have to be carrying a heavy pot on his head. That was the custom in olden days for carrying heavy things. So after he comes into your house because you said that it would be okay, he walks over towards your fire. Now the first thing that he is going to do would be to set the container (heavy pot) on the ground. He would not keep it on top of his head! That would be totally ridiculous. And don’t tell me that he would kneel down. The only reason that he would kneel down would be to place the pot on the ground. And as I wrote in the previous email, there would be a great danger of a hot coal falling onto his body (or his clothes) if he kept the pot ON HIS HEAD! Well, that is all that I have to say. I hope that you will stop telling this completely false and illogical idea. It doesn’t make an ounce of sense.
Jack G. says
According to the Word of God, this is what: “heap burning coals upon our enemy’s head” means.
As for the head of those who surround me, let the evil of their lips cover them; and let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise!
The Lord tests the righteous, but the wicked and the one who loves violence he hates. Upon the wicked he will rain burning coals; fire and brimstone and a burning wind shall be the portion of their cup.
Steve Hall says
I’m late to the party, see this was a 2014 thread but I just wanted to submit what my Greek professor in seminary taught us about Romans 12:20 and thus Proverbs 25:21-22:
He said that in the ancient middle east it was a common medical practice to wrap hot coals in a tied, leather pouch when a person was ill and place it on their head. It was believed that the heat drew sickness out of the body and provided comfort for the infirm.
I do not recall his source for this explanation but I have been comforted by his interpretation.
I was taught many years ago he likely application that makes sense. It goes something like this; that heaping fiery coals upon your enemies had meant symbolically providing the basis for refining the potentially beneficial qualities hidden in others. To try to win them over if possible.
This scripture is quoted by the apostle Paul at the passage found at Romans 12:17-21
Clearly, the whole context of what Paul is staying there is ‘be kind to your enemies’ and concludes with conquer evil with the good. So it would be inconsistent to think he was saying to make matters worse.
In bible times, and even now great heat is used to refine precious metals, such as extracting gold and silver from crude ore.
So, it seems that this expression means that by being kind, not quickly rising to provocation or the anger expressed by others may have a good effect on the aggressor. When someone sees that the other person (us) are responding with kindness or perhaps sympathy, they may change the way they are treating us. They may see that they were unreasonably aggressive. And they may even come to understand that they were mistaken or wrong.
It could happen 🙂
What do you think?
Thanks for insight – God’s ways are wonderful! Love is His way -and standing for His truth always -and in His strength it is possible.
Dorothea Chaffin says
I had always believed none of the above, but that your kindness toward your enemy would cause their conscience to bother them. The coals of fire on their heads is equivocal to a searing conscience. This makes much more sense to me and you have to extrapolate far less than this explanation. To believe heaping coals of fire on someone’s head is helping them heat their home—I don’t think so.
You’re too kind to the lost. There is a Biblical balance. We should not be like the hyper Calvinists or the followers of Steven Anderson who pray for the deaths of their enemies and rejoice in them burning in Hellfire but we are not to be like the Universalist and universal reconciliation heretics who say God has no holy hatred towards the lost. He does. That’s why John 3:36 and other verses say that they are under his wrath. God loved them with the cross but He has righteous loathing for those who hate and attack Jesus and His Bible and His born again children. The problem for we saved people is to realize that had it not been for the blood of Jesus and our free will choice to believe in Him we would be burning in Hellfire too. Stick with the sound words of Scripture. Jesus said He came not to condemn the lost World because every one of them is born condemned and once they knowingly sin they’re under His holy wrath unless they believe and get saved before their body dies. If they die lost they are burning in literal flames forever.
SHARON MOSES says
THIS IS GOOD.
Wonderful and clear explanation. Thank you