Day 168: What does “Heaping Burning Coals on His Head” Mean? (Proverbs 25:21-22)

“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”
‭‭Proverbs‬ ‭25‬:‭21‬-‭22‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Through the Bible: Proverbs 25-26

Proverbs is a book that rewards reflection. The beauty of poetry is that it forces you to read slowly, deliberately, and repeatedly. In today’s reading, there are lots of similes and metaphors. Remember those from English class? “This is that,” or “This is like that.” Many of them, like verse 28, are obvious: When you lack self-control, you make yourself vulnerable to attack, like a city without walls. Some of them take a little more work, but then the light dawns, and you understand.

Like verse 19: “Trusting in a treacherous man in time of trouble is like a bad tooth or a foot that slips.”

A bad tooth or a slippery surface are both things that you expect to be trustworthy, until they aren’t. But you don’t know they are going to betray you until you bite the apple or step on the sidewalk.

But then you get to a verse like 21-22, and no matter how many times you read it, or how slowly you read it, you still can’t quite figure it out:

“If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you.” Proverbs‬ ‭25‬:‭21‬-‭22‬ ‭ESV‬‬

‬‬Wait, what? Is this about being nice to someone you hate so they feel ashamed for how they have treated you? Is it about bringing God’s judgment down on their head? Is it is about showing kindness that leads to repentance (see Romans 2:4)? If so, then setting your enemy’s head on fire seems like a strange way to reconcile.

Part of the problem is that we are trying to make sense of a three thousand year old idiom. Here in the South, most guys would understand what I mean when I say, “I outkicked my coverage” when describing my wife. It means I married out of my league. I punched above my weight. I got out over my skis.

Three thousand years from now, someone reading the previous paragraph would have absolutely no clue what I was trying to say about my wife. Even the explanations of the first metaphor require an understanding of other metaphors.

Note to future historians: It means I married a woman who is far better than I deserve.

So what does it mean that if you show kindness to your enemy, you are heaping burning coals on his or her head?

At the root, it means that whether you understand it or not, you are commanded to show kindness to your enemy, If he is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him water. It also means that the Lord will reward you if you do. There will be some benefit to you if you choose to give food and water to your enemy.

A wonderful article from the Massachusetts Bible Society sums up the different possible interpretations:

1. It’s a good thing. We are reminded that in many cultures, even today, people carry items in containers on their heads. So perhaps the picture is of you offering coals from your own hearth to a neighbor so that his own fire won’t go out.

2. It’s a vengeful thing. You are seeking to make the other person feel bad for how they have treated you. And if God rains down fire and brimstone on their head, so much the better.

3. It’s a clever thing. Putting a container of burning coals on your enemy’s head is a cleaver means of protecting yourself. After all, if someone is trying to balance burning coals on their head, they can’t haul off and punch you without endangering themselves.

4. It’s a sanctifying thing. In scripture, coals and fire are often used figuratively to describe cleansing. Think about when Isaiah had his vision in the temple. When he cried out, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips,” the angel took a live coal from the altar, touched Isaiah’s lips with it, and said, “See, your guilt is taken away. Your sin is atoned for” (Isaiah 9:4-6).

5. It’s a loving thing. By showing kindness to you the other person, you are treating someone as a friend who deserves to be treated as an enemy. This is what God did for us when He gave us His son:

“For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Romans‬ ‭5‬:‭6‬-‭8‬ ‭ESV‬‬

6. It’s a “You need to be forgiven” thing. We rarely imagine that we are in the wrong when we read verses about our enemies. But sometimes we have made an enemy of someone because of our sin and our hostility. Perhaps going out of your way to show kindness is the first step to you reconciling with a brother or sister that you have wronged.

We may never know precisely what Proverbs 25:21-22 means. But as we have often said during this journey, the best course is to let Scripture interpret Scripture. Context matters. Here is how the article from the Massachusetts Bible Society concludes:

From “love your neighbor as yourself” in Leviticus 19:18 to “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” in Matthew 5:44 and many other passages, it’s clear throughout the Bible that whether enemies who receive our kindness have a change of heart or not, it’s our own behavior, not theirs that should be our focus. We are to do the good and loving thing, whether it changes anything about the relationship or not. And it’s clear from one glance around the world that, even apart from religious teaching, responding to hate with more hate makes things worse, not better.

Anne Robertson, “Coals of Fire in Romans 12:19-20






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