“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.” Romans 12:20
In Romans, Paul talks about how to deal with our enemies and those who have wronged us. He says many wise things about dealing with others in this passage:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my 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. Romans 12:17-21
As we read this, one sentence sticks out to us that doesn’t make sense – about heaping burning coals on an enemy’s head. We wonder what Paul meant by this. It helps to know that Paul is quoting Proverbs 25:21-22: “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.” Understanding this proverb will unlock Paul’s words as well.
That saying is in the middle of several proverbs that use physical images to describe emotional reactions. Right before it is the passage, “Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or one that pours vinegar on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart” (Proverbs 25:20, RSV). The physical picture of discomfort illustrates that trying to make a person in mourning happy just distresses them more. Likewise, the passage about coals is about the emotional discomfort an enemy will feel when you waken his conscience about his conduct toward you. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia1 :
The word “coal” is often used in a metaphorical sense: 2 Samuel 14: 7 speaks of the “quenching of the coal” of a man, meaning the complete annihilation of his issue; while in Proverbs 25:22 kindness bestowed upon an enemy is called “heaping coals of fire upon his head,” since it tends to waken his deadened conscience and help him to realize his wrong. Sirach 8:10 compares the smoldering and easily roused passion of the godless man to the coal that is easily lighted and breaks forth into flame.
The picture of putting coals on a person’s head initially sounds like a picture of causing burning pain, but it really is not. Instead, it seems to be a picture of stirring up the coals of a fire to rouse it back to life again. It is a picture of stirring within a person a response of remorse, when they see your kindness in the face of their meanness. This must also be the sense of Paul’s passage – we cause our enemies to be remorseful for their actions toward us, and in doing so we overcome evil by doing good.