What does the expression in Romans 12:20 mean, “you will heap burning coals on his head”?
In Romans 12:20 the apostle Paul says:
“But if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:20 NASB)
The image of burning coals on the head of another is a figure of speech used by the apostle Paul in the context of vengeance. Even if the phrase seems to have a negative connotation with a sense of revenge, this is not the result that the persecuted must achieve through his acts of kindness. Does what Paul says mean that doing good to enemies is an indirect way of punishing them?
After in the first chapters the apostle Paul presents the theological truth “the righteous will live by faith,” beginning with chapter 12 the apostle speaks of the practical part or walk of the Christian in the righteousness received by faith in Jesus Christ. The implications of the righteous one living by faith are his transformation and his walk in the will of God: which is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2). As a Christian, I am not alone in accomplishing this task, but I am part of the Body of Christ, empowered by God’s grace to teach, encourage, and serve others in love (Romans 12: 3-13). Then he focuses on the attitude the Christian must have in the hostile world in which he lives (Romans 12: 14-21).
In such a world, it would have been very easy and natural to resort to violence to protect the persecuted. But Paul knew that bitterness, resentment, and violence were not the way to be followed in this world by Christ’s followers. He experienced the love of God poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit and which is stronger than human hatred. Paul endured the hardships of persecutors. His exhortation to Christians is to bless those who curse them and not to return evil for evil. In situations of conflict, Christians must seek peace (Romans 12:18). If the values of this world call for revenge and violence, then the Christian is called to respond with love and kindness to the point of feeding and giving a drink of water to the enemy who is hungry and thirsty (Romans 12:19-20). Why? Because God is the one who judges, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.”
When we choose to respond to persecution with kindness, we ignite “burning coals” on the heads of the wicked. The radical thinking encouraged by the apostle Paul for the Christian is not just to “not return evil for evil,” but to “overcome evil by practicing good.” In the Old Testament, God’s reward is always seen as a response to man’s acts of kindness.
If your enemy is hungry, give him food 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 NASB)
This analysis of the context shows that the image of burning coals has a positive meaning and not a negative one. But what does the Christian achieve by “heaping burning coals” on the head of the enemy? The recognition of sin and its sanctification, as it was with the prophet Isaiah.
In the year of King Uzziah’s death I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple. Seraphim were standing above Him, each having six wings: with two each covered his face, and with two each covered his feet, and with two each flew. And one called out to another and said,“Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of armies.The whole earth is full of His glory.” And the foundations of the thresholds trembled at the voice of him who called out, while the temple was filling with smoke. Then I said, “Woe to me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of armies.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal in his hand, which he had taken from the altar with tongs. He touched my mouth with it and said, “Behold, this has touched your lips; and your guilt is taken away and atonement is made for your sin.” (Isaiah 6:1-7 NASB)
From this account we see that burning coals, repentance, and sanctification are present. By doing good and demonstrating the love of Christ, we can win our enemies for Christ.
In a cultural context that we encounter in Egyptian customs we can see that the one who had committed evil, as a sign of his repentance, carried a vessel of burning coals on his head.
In conclusion, the meaning of the phrase “burning coals” on the head of the enemy is to respond to evil with the good that the wrongdoer may be brought to repentance. By returning evil, I think of the benefit of the enemy — the change of the enemy into a brother in Christ.
I recommend that you study the Romans course parts I-IV for a deeper understanding of the truth “the righteous will live by faith.”
Translated by Ina Croitoru