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What does it mean to heap coals of fire on your enemy’s head? (Prov. 25:22)

Proverbs 25:22 does seem to be an odd phrase when we first read it. It is also quoted by the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:20, where it is in the context of not taking vengeance, and overcoming evil with good. So, I think we could safely conclude that it is not about doing harm or evil to one’s neighbor. There must be another meaning here.

I think the phrase means something very different. The New Living Translation attempts to clarify this:

In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.”

This seems to capture what is intended. Our chaste behavior may lead those that do evil to us to be ashamed, and therefore consider repentance. This is consistent with 1 Peter 2:12:

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.”

When David behaved honorably with King Saul, we read of a similar reaction by Saul as he saw David’s righteousness. See 1 Samuel 24:16-19.

Finally, the words of the Lord:

“Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.” (Matthew 5:43-45)

The Jamieson-Faussett-Brown Commentary suggests that what this meant was that just as metals are melted by heaping coals upon them, so is the heart softened by kindness. I like that explanation.

So, we can rely on the breadth of Scriptures, which is to pray for, do good to your enemy. We are never asked to take vengeance, but to count that God is in control of all things. If we answer evil with good, this may indeed be not only noticed, but lead some to repentance, melting away the dross from their hearts.

Bro. Dave Jennings

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