My thoughts (Steve Adams):
So, if I give my enemies food and drink, I heap coals of fire on their heads? Puzzling, isn’t it? And yet it’s not a verse that can easily be dismissed as “just one of those hard-to-understand proverbs.” It meant enough to the Apostle Paul that he quotes it in Romans 12:20, where he encouraged his sisters and brothers in Christ not to seek revenge, but to take the high road and live peaceably.
So can Romans give us important clues to the meaning of this Proverb? I think so. In the context (v.17-19), Paul says “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’”
Instead of repaying evil for evil, Romans says, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals of fire on their heads. Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good.” So Romans strongly indicates that heaping coals of fire on someone’s head is a kind, noble act.
As you’d expect, there are a number of theories about what this proverb means. Bishop K.C. Pillai (1900-1970) was converted to Christianity from Hinduism and taught what are called Orientalisms (customs of people from the East) to the people of North America and Great Britain. Bishop Pillai wrote (1) that on cold mornings a citizen of a village would rise early and build a fire. Then a young man would commonly carry burning coals in a pottery container on his head to deliver to households of a village. This job would be soothing because the man would become warmed as he carried the coals, and would obviously benefit the chilly village residents, who would take a few of these coals and use them to start their fires and warm their homes. So, in this explanation, the coals of fire delivered what each person need most — warmth!
I found several other explanations. A popular one, in varying forms, is that the coals of fire symbolize a burning of the conscience of the enemy, shaming them to regret and repentance. I found another explanation on a website called Pearls in a Nutshell. It cites Isaiah 6, when an angel came to Isaiah when he was lost and in distress, “a man of unclean lips.” The angel flew to Isaiah with a hot coal from the altar, touched his mouth, and in the process blotted out Isaiah’s sins. This was a pivotal moment, because just a few verses later, Isaiah answered God’s call to service with the famous declaration, “Here am I; send me!” So, maybe hot coals on our head symbolize a cleansing of the entire mind — changing our aim in life from uncleanness to “what can I do for you today, God?” Combining the Isaiah verses with the Pillai explanation seems to point toward a gem of wisdom. As I do good toward my adversaries, God sets my spirit free because God burns away the junk and gunk. What’s left is a pure heart, on fire for God. And my enemies receive the same miraculous benefits! Everyone in this transaction is set free!
Thought for the Day: If a co-worker or friend or relative makes me angry, they aren’t really my enemy; but what if I nevertheless use the “coals of fire technique” to change the situation from animosity to benevolence?
We encourage you to include a time of prayer with this reading. If you need a place to get started, consider the suggestions on the How to Pray page.
(1) This website also contains a navigation tool for finding Orientalisms by topic and verse, as well as audio teachings and a list of Pillai’s published works.