Powerful and Inspiring Explanation of “Heaping Coals of Fire on the Heads of Our Enemies”


I have been studying Romans 12:9-21 in depth.

Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. 10 Be kindly affectionate to one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another; 11 not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; 12 rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer; 13 distributing to the needs of the saints, given to hospitality.

14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. 16 Be of the same mind toward one another. Do not set your mind on high things, but associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own opinion.

17 Repay no one evil for evil. Have regard for good things in the sight of all men. 18 If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. 19 Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,”[a] says the Lord. 20 Therefore

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
If he is thirsty, give him a drink;
For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.”[b]

21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

When Paul says Let your love be sincere (without hypocrisy) (V9), the word for Love that he uses is agape. Up to this point Paul has used agape in Romans only for divine love (5:5, 8:35,39), except in 8:28 where he used it for man’s love for God. But here it is used to indicate the kind of love Christians are to show to others. If the church throughout time was truly characterized by agape I believe there wouldn’t be sad episodes in the church like the Crusades or even systemic abuse of children. The little statement – let love be sincere, is so simple and so straightforward yet profoundly powerful: it must be foundational to our Christian conduct. A comment was made in a lecture I watched on this pericope “The Church does not exist in a Vacuum. The whole purpose of its ongoing presence in the world is precisely to be in the world as a blessing to the world.” This certainly sits well in the broader reading of scripture where God’s heart for the oppressed, the widow, the orphan, the poor, the weak and the needy is communicated consistently and strongly.

It is puzzling that toward the end of this pericope on love within the church community and love to the world at large, Paul indicates that part of the motive in feeding our enemies is to “heap coals of fire on their heads” (v20).  This is hardly a motive born from agape love. This is hardly the right thing to do when we are called to be a blessing to the world and it’s hardly a reflection of the words of Christ in Matthew 5:44 where we are told to bless those who curse us, do good to those who hate us and pray for those who spitefully use us. Biblical Commentator Bryne postulates that the coals of fire reference may be a prelude to salvation –“ where kindness melts the heart and effects lasting reconciliation” (Bryne 1996:382). Having looked at the Proverbs context from which Paul is quoting (Proverbs 25:22), it is hard to come to the same conclusion as Bryne has done for this verse.

I found this great explanation.

In Bible lands almost everything is carried on the head – water jars, baskets of fruit, vegetables, fish or any other article. Those carrying the burden rarely touch it with the hands, and they walk through crowded streets and lanes with perfect ease. In many homes the only fire they have is kept in a brazier, which they use for simple cooking as well as for warmth. They plan to always keep it burning. If it should go out, some member of the family will take the brazier to a neighbor’s house to borrow fire.

Then she will lift the brazier to her head and start for home. If her neighbor is a generous woman, she will heap the brazier full of coals. To feed an enemy and give him drink was like heaping the empty brazier with live coals – which meant food, warmth and almost life itself to the person or home needing it, and was the symbol of finest generosity. – B.M. Bowen, Strange Scriptures that Perplex the Western Mind

We, Westerners, usually picture vengeance when we think of pouring hot coals on someone’s heads. The Semites pictured something completely different … We, Westerners, must break some of our traditions, if we are to ever come to a deep understanding of the God of the Bible. It is full of beautiful pictures like this one. – Gary Amirault, Tentmaker

That my friend is awesome. Loving each other with Agape is God’s way of being an authentic faith community connecting with the world.

Categories: Theology

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5 replies

  1. i love how you teach us these things …brilliant 🙂 thank you Peter 🙂

  2. Hi Pete,
    This is really interesting. As a theological student I always love learning new things. Yet this is something that I think I will need to look into more. Although I trust what you have said (you have had much greater experience and more wisdom than I) I have also read a different explanation.

    That is the idea with heaping coals onto someones head was to uphold them in the highest blessing within your home. In the winters of ancient times, so as to make sleeping more comfortable people would place the coals left over from cooking (those non essential to the maintaining of fire) in the room or even under the bed of those staying at your home. What I read was that the idea of placing the coals on someones head was to place them in the highest place of honour within your home as the heat from the leftover coals would be placed close to them (near there head which poked out from the blankets) and gave them the greatest warmth. In this you would show both love and humility towards the person, replicating the love and sacrifice (in this act you would sacrifice your own comfort in sake for theirs) of Christ in your actions.

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this.


    • There is a simple explanation for heaping the coals. In my book that tells of customs of Hebrews and people in the time of Yeshua, the writers tell of the people carrying receptacles on their heads. If their fire goes out in their home, they “put on” their receptacle and ask their neighbors for coals so they can restart their own fires at home. Thus, to heap coals on the head of your neighbor (friend of enemy) is to bless them.

  3. Beautiful! Thank you so much for this!

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