Friday, April 12, 2013

The Meaning of Romans 12:20

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.  



by Ivan Maddox
Atlanta, GA

In any culture there are customs, peculiarities and idioms that are completely understood by those who live in the culture, but which can be confusing to those on the outside. In the United States, for instance, a dog is a pet, "dogs" may be a reference to feet, to dog means to worry or harass, a hot dog is a type of sausage (which is NEVER supposed to contain dog meat!), and "hot dogging" is showing off your athletic prowress. We switch back and forth between these totally unrelated meanings with scarcely a thought; but to someone trying to learn our language, these very different meanings for very similar terms can be a major barrier to communication.

Just as there are Americanisms that someone from outside our country must understand if he or she is to understand accurately what we mean by what we say, so also in the Bible there are customs and mannerisms and idioms that must be understood if we are to understand accurately what the scriptures are saying. These are sometimes referred to as Orientalisms, because the culture in which they occur is an oriental one.

George Lamsa, Bishop K. C. Pillai and others have done much to shed light on Eastern customs for those of us who live in the West. But while there is much that can be learned from their works, we must study them with caution. One does not have to look very far to see that there are sometimes very different and conflicting explanations given for the same alleged customs. Also, the Bible narrative covers a period of about 4,000 years. During that time, customs and idioms underwent changes. What applied in one passage of scripture may apply not at all in another. Finally, we must be careful to work all scripture pertaining to a given subject, so that we do not use a custom or idiom to completely change the actual meaning of a passage of scripture.

Let's look at a passage of scripture that looks strange to the Western mind, then let's look at the Oriental custom used to clarify the passage. Finally, let's check that explanation by looking at other scripture on the same subject, to see whether it confirms or conflicts with our conclusions.

In Romans, 12 a passage is quoted from Proverbs about how to treat your enemies.

Romans 12:19-20: Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord. Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

Proverbs 25:21-22: If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.

What does it mean to heap coals of fire upon someone's head? 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.

This sounds like a reasonable explanation, even though some problems become evident when you think about it. On mornings that are not so cold, it seems that this could be a very uncomfortable job. Also, the youth was kept warm as he went about doing good to others. The reference is to someone who is actively doing evil. Still, the explanation seems plausible.

In Psalm 140 we have a very different reference to "coals of fire."

Psalm 140:5-12: The proud have hid a snare for me, and cords; they have spread a net by the wayside; they have set gins for me. Selah. I said unto the LORD, Thou art my God: hear the voice of my supplications, O LORD. O GOD the Lord, the strength of my salvation, thou hast covered my head in the day of battle. Grant not, O LORD, the desires of the wicked: further not his wicked device; lest they exalt themselves. Selah. As for the head of those that compass me about, let the mischief of their own lips cover them. Let burning coals fall upon them: let them be cast into the fire; into deep pits, that they rise not up again. Let not an evil speaker be established in the earth: evil shall hunt the violent man to overthrow him. I know that the LORD will maintain the cause of the afflicted, and the right of the poor.

Here again we see hot coals being heaped on someone's head. But these coals are not just hot; they are burning. And they are not heaped on the head in blessing, but in judgment.

This is a prayer to God from an individual who is being attacked by evildoers. His trust is not in his own ability to defend himself, but rather in God, who maintains the cause of the afflicted and who protects the poor.

The point being made here is very similar to the point made in Proverbs 25 and Romans 12: the follower of God is not to avenge himself or herself, but to leave all vengeance to God, who judges rightly and rewards both good and evil at the right time and in the right way. In Psalm 140, the believer is powerless to maintain his own cause. In the other two records, the implication is that the believer has the power to take vengeance, but refrains because it is outside the will of God for him to do so.

The real issue for the believer is character. Jesus pointed this out in the Sermon on the Mount. God wants us to be like Him, and He is constantly doing good to those who are doing evil to Him.

Matthew 5:43-48: 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. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same? And if ye salute your brethren only, what do ye more than others? do not even the publicans so? Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

We are to do good to our enemies because that is how God treats His enemies. We are to imitate Him in love. The closest we are ever to come to seeking revenge is doing good for our enemy. By doing this we are putting our full trust in God that He will set things straight.

Proverbs 17:13 has another warning for the evildoer: Whoso rewardeth evil for good, evil shall not depart from his house.

This dovetails nicely with what we read in Romans 12. When you do good to those who are doing evil to you, this may cause them to refrain from their evil; but this is not always the case, and this is not what the believer is counting on. We are good to our enemies because we want to be like God, and God is love, even toward those who do not deserve it.

But God takes a very dim view of the practice of rewarding evil to those who have done you only good. He makes it very clear that He Himself will deal with this sin. He has the power, the righteousness and the full knowledge necessary to do what is absolutely right in the situation. He does not need our help in this. He needs for us to do what He told us to do. Then He will do what He has promised to do.

From what we have just seen, it looks like the "coals in the basket" custom is misleading at best when applied to this verse. Looking at other scripture on the subject may, at times, give a better picture of what is meant in a passage of scripture than even studying the customs and idioms. These should not be discarded or ignored, but they must be used with caution, so that we may be sure that they are properly applicable to the passage to which we are trying to apply them. 

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