Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Epilogue: "Heap Burning Coals"

21If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat;
And if he is thirsty, give him water to drink;
22For you will heap burning coals on his head,
And the LORD will reward you.

I had promised you a revisit to Proverbs 25 and the expression "heap burning coals on one's head."

Obviously, one is not actually heaping burning coals on another's head, nor is this an act of vengeance. (The Lord would not reward that.) Dictionary.com says the expression is an idiom meaning "to repay evil with good in order to make one's enemy repent." Well...that's kind of on the right track, but, from a Biblical perspective, God has a lot more to do with the recognition of sin and the bringing about of repentance than man does.

Not surprisingly, as Edie had noted in her comment, there is disagreement about what this expression means, even where it comes from. So, here are some of the findings with their sources:

"Refers to an ancient Egyptian custom in which a person who wanted to show public contrition carried a pan of burning coals on his head. The coals represented the burning pain of his shame and guilt. When believers lovingly help their enemies, it should bring shame to such people for their hate and animosity."
--My NASB Study Bible on Romans 12:20, in which Paul quotes Proverbs 25:21 & 22

"This has been described as a reference to an Oriental custom. A fire in the center of a village was kept going day and night. This fire was used to light the fires in individual homes each day. Every morning a village youth would put a container on his head, and hot coals would be heaped into it. He would then go from house to house distributing the hot coals so that the villagers could start their fires. On cold days this was an enviable job, since the heat from the coals of fire kept the head and hands of the youth warmed. To heap coals of fire on someone's head, then, means to warm him, and, by extension, to bless him."
--Ivan Maddox, Emory University Chaplain's Office

"It will be a likely means to win upon them, and bring them over to be reconciled to us; we shall mollify them as the refiner melts the metal in the crucible, not only by putting it over the fire, but by heaping coals of fire upon it. The way to turn an enemy into a friend is, to act towards him in a friendly manner. If it do not gain him, it will aggravate his sin and punishment, and heap the burning coals of God's wrath upon his head, as rejoicing in his calamity may be an occasion of God's turning his wrath from him...."
--Matthew Henry's Whole Bible Commentary

"This is not to be understood as a revengeful act intended to embarrass its victim, but just the opposite. The picture is that of the high priest (Lev. 16:12) who, on the Day of Atonement, took his censer and filled it with "coals of fire" from off the altar of burnt offering, and then put incense on the coals to create a pleasing, sweet-smelling fragrance. The cloud or smoke of the incense covered the mercy seat and was acceptable to God for atonement. Samuel Wesley wrote: "So artists melt the sullen ore of lead, By heaping coals of fire upon its head: In the kind warmth the metal learns to glow, And pure from dross the silver runs below."
--Footnote from the Amplified Bible

More than you ever wanted to know about burning coals, yes? Discrepancies there are, but if you read through these commentaries, meditate on this verse, what you know about God's wisdom--you do start to put together a picture, another strong metaphor of trying to reach the heart.

After Paul quoted Proverbs, he added in verse 21 of Romans 12, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." Not that it is the easy thing to do. I'm thinking it's downright tough most of the time. But, we do this because it's what Jesus wants us to do, and He told us as much in Matthew:

"You have heard that it was said, 'YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven...."
--Matthew 5: 43-45

Photo: http://www.goldfishandclowns.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/burning_coals_banner.jpg

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Note: I read from the New American Standard Bible translation, specifically, The MacArthur Study Bible (NASB). I will quote other sources if used in a post.
I also use Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (with notes from the King James Version).


T. Anne said...

Great post Sue! Jesus' words never fail. Love your enemy and be sons of God. I love it.

Kelly Combs said...

You got the bottom line right. Great study. Thanks again!

Carmen said...

You gotta love Him! He's always looking for all men to be saved. Great insight to this verse!

Edie said...

Very well said Sue J. I'm sorry I couldn't be around for most of your study but glad for the few I made it over here for.