Thursday, October 21

Heaping Coals of Fire

Today, I offer you the next post by another cyber friend, Michele Archer, who brings us the next verse in our series. Please stop by her site M. L. Archer’s Published Stories.

“...thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” (Rom. 12:20 KJV)

Wow! That sounds uncomfortable! Yup, just what I want to do…go to someone’s house and have them barbecue my hair.

Not only does that sound awful, the place it is written in scripture makes it sound completely absurd. Here, check out the King James Version…

“Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. 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. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”

As an average person reading this, I have to be pulling out my hair. In the two verses surrounding verse 20, we’re told not to give into vengeance; we’re told to overcome evil with good. But what is so good about blistering someone’s head? 

One might suggest it’s a problem with the KJV English. All that 1611 Elizabethan crazy talk...etc... Well, let’s see how later versions handled this…

The New International Version says, “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.’”

Ouch! Not only do we have coals, now they are BURNING coals!

Below we have a translation where they attempted to give the understanding of this phrase. However, I think they missed it.

The New Living Translation says, Dear friends, never avenge yourselves. Leave that to God. For it is written, ‘I will take vengeance; I will repay those who deserve it,’ says the Lord. Instead, do what the Scriptures say: ‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink, and they will be ashamed of what they have done to you.’ Do not let evil get the best of you, but conquer evil by doing good.”

Is shame to be the goal of our actions here? I don’t think so. You see, the Bible is an eastern book and to the extent that we understand it that way will greatly determine our actions when it comes to following the Word of God.

It’s a very simple tradition in play here. In the ancient villages, sometimes two women might have a flint for starting fires in the morning. Once they had their fires going, they would fill a clay jar with coals from the fire, wrap it in cloth so it would not burn, and then a young man would carry the jar on his head from house to house bringing a coal to each home.

This was not an unpleasant task.  During cold mornings, the pot of hot coal warmed him through and through.

The meaning of the scripture is not that we do good so that we make someone feel bad or ashamed, but because our goodness will warm them. And hopefully they will want to draw near the on-going fire of God’s great love.

7 Responses
  1. Thank you for this post. I want to be a person that makes another feel warm. Great post!

  2. I read this passage not long ago and wondered again what it meant. Thanks for giving us this picture that makes so much sense of the passage.
    Eleanor Shepherd

  3. MTJ Says:

    Hi Michele/Lynn,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this passage of scripture. Reading, "...for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head." -- Can feed into the human nature of vengance which brings me in direct conflict with the emphasis being on me not taking vengence.

    This explanation you give demonstrates how love is a more excellent way, demonstrating the grace and forgiveness of God in my life toward others. I like to think of this scripture as saying, doing so, I give place to the Lord, allowing Him to be revealed to my perceived enemy as a loving, caring, forgiving God of grace and mercy.

    Blessings and peace.


  4. M. L. Archer Says:

    Those are wonderful comments, everyone. And Lynn, thank you for allowing me to post here, it is always an honor.

    Biblical orientalisms have caused more confusion and even caused people to stay away from Christ because we don't always know how to explain them. But when we understand the culture behind the Bible, it makes God's Word that much more clear.


  5. Michele, you did an awesome job of explaining the various translations of the verse. God expects a different reaction from His children to avenging wrong, and she masterfully captured the essence of His command in scripture.

  6. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Nicely told. Thank you.

  7. Hey Lynn, thanks for commenting on my blog! Sorry you didn't win Billy Coffey's book. I know you'll enjoy it when you get your hands on it. Hope to see you around again soon. Happy blogging!