The Hotter the Better

What is the meaning of “In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head” (Prov. 25:22, NIV)?

Sounds painful! Allow me to quote the full proverb: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you” (verses 21, 22, NIV). Now we can identify the real issue: Placing burning coals on someone’s head damages that person, but the Lord rewards us for doing it!

The proverb is formed by two sections: the saying itself, which is challenging but not difficult to understand (verse 21); and the rationale for the saying, which is difficult to understand (verse 22). We will examine both sections and see whether we can quench the coals.

1. You and Your Enemy: The enemy’s behavior is not described, but it is assumed to have harmed another, usually someone who is vulnerable for social or/and financial reasons. The absence of justice creates in human hearts a desire for vengeance, and the opportunity occasionally presents itself with almost overwhelming power. In ancient times tribal vengeance was extremely cruel, and only served to perpetuate the cycle of blood feuds. This proverb attempts to break the cycle by setting vengeance aside and embracing mercy and sincere concern for one’s enemy instead. The case is hypothetical (“If you . . .”), because we should decide how to treat our enemies before the roles are reversed. Otherwise, it would be easier for the spirit of vengeance to prevail. The saying mentions two of the most fundamental human needs, namely, food and water. It assumes that the enemies are in a condition in which they already experience the pangs of hunger and the anguish of thirst. Life is beginning to ebb away.

The proverb challenges wise persons not to apply the principle of retribution, but to show compassion by providing food and water. The Hebrew text is a little more emphatic, suggesting that one’s enemy may already be too weak or too proud to accept the offer of love. The two verbs could be translated “feed, force to eat” and “make to drink.” This teaching is totally supported by Jesus (Matt. 5:43-48).

2. Coals of Fire: The proverb is not saying anything new. In Israel, God became the avenger of His people and assumed the responsibility of punishing their enemies. He commanded His people to reject vengeance (Lev. 19:17, 18), and the proverb could have appealed to this to justify the saying. But as is common in Proverbs, wise persons look for practical, even rational, reasons to justify the sayings. In this case we do not know the meaning of the idiomatic expression or the practice behind the phrase “You will heap burning coals on his head.”

Scholars have offered several possible explanations, among them an Egyptian act of penitence that required people to put burning coals on their heads. But scholars do not consider the text helpful, because of its recent date (c. 300 B.C.), and the fact that in it people place burning coals on their own heads.

So we have to deal with what we know, and move on from there. We know that burning coals placed on a human being cause pain (Prov. 6:27, 28) and are unpleasant. In our text, treating enemies as friends would be as painful for them—that is, as emotionally and socially painful— as placing burning coals on one’s head. It scorches inflated egos in a socially visible way. This could lead to repentance, but it does not seem to be the point of the saying. The enemy is defeated through an act of kindness (see Rom. 12:20). This leads to the second reason for following the saying: God will reward you. That is an extra blessing.

I’m not completely certain that this answers your question, but I hope it’s useful.