Recently Added
to Exposition of Romans:

3:9–20—Conclusion: OT confirms that humanity is under sin’s power
(January 26th 2019)

12:20—Burning coals to awaken a guilty conscience.

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.”

Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21-22. Both there and here the expression “burning coals on his head” is difficult to interpret, because this figure of speech has very little precedent in biblical or other ancient literature to trace its meaning. Does Paul want our enemy to come under God’s judgment or to experience God’s kindness?

God is always redemptive, and Paul always seeks to advance the gospel. So how likely is it that Paul would want us to bring God’s judgment on a person? If that is the case, Paul advises us to be kind to our enemy for the purpose of causing him harm. Our motive in doing so would be retaliation, not redemption. The problem with such an interpretation leads most modern commentators to an alternative view.

The point of this proverb seems to be that if we treat enemies with kindness maybe they will feel remorse for the wrong they have done, repent, and receive God’s blessing. If they don’t repent, yes they will receive punishment instead of blessing. But at least we have done our part to express love. This does seem to be Paul’s meaning as well, and it aligns both with the context of his teaching in this chapter and with Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek, bless those who persecute us, and love our enemies.

More on “burning coals”

In case you are interested, here is a sampling of experts’ thinking on this expression.

A. P. Ross, in the Expositor’s Bible Commentary on Proverbs, says this imagery “represents pangs of conscience, more readily effected by kindness than by violence. These burning coals produce the sharp pain of contrition through regret.”

The Apologetics Study Bible says of this Romans verse, “The burning coals may refer to an Egyptian ritual during which one demonstrated genuine repentance by carrying hot coals in some container. Paul urged Christians to do good to enemies so they see their sins and repent.”

Bob Utley views the expression as a “cultural idiom possibly from Egypt which meant that kindness is the best way to turn an enemy into a friend.” He also says that “burning coals” may represent shame at one’s wrong deeds brought about by the victim’s unexpected love and forgiveness.

Douglas Moo, like most modern commentators, says Paul views “coals of fire” as a metaphor for “the burning pangs of shame.” Moo writes, “Acting kindly toward our enemies is a means of leading them to be ashamed of their conduct toward us and, perhaps, to repent and turn to the Lord whose love we embody.”

Charles Swindoll says the expression is “an idiom describing humility, not unlike our expression, ‘He came to me with his hat in his hand’.” Swindoll refers to how a poor man in the Great Depression would hold out his hat hoping for a donation. “In ancient times, allowing one’s household fire to go out was seen as the epitome of irresponsibility. The humiliating experience of walking home from a neighbor’s house with a pan of coals probably gave rise to this word-picture for humility.”

Everyone’s fateful decision

We are reminded of Paul’s statement in the previous chapter about the kindness and severity of God (11:22). Each one of us will face one or the other. The determining factor is whether we will humble ourselves before our Creator and call upon the name of the Lord to be saved (11:13). Humbling ourselves now avoids future humiliation: “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (11:15).

How much better it is to come “hat in hand” to God now, repent of our sins, and in humility call on the name of the Lord for mercy so that we may experience God’s kindness. To wait until it is too late is to face the shame of judgment.

We who were once God’s enemies now, by the blood of Christ, experience his great kindness. We in turn must be kind to our enemies in the hope their conscience will lead them to repentance and enjoyment of God’s kindness.

Why does this matter to God? Because he is patient and gives everyone time to repent.

And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. (Daniel 12:2)