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. (Proverbs 25:21-22)
Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath… “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:19-20)
AS you can see, God (writing through Paul) quoted the Proverbs to the Church at Rome. In the Romans passage, Paul is emphasizing the fact that God is the One and only One worthy and able to make right judgments and to parcel out discipline. The Proverb adds one thought on to the passage – and the Lord will reward you.
So in dealing with those who have hurt us, rewarding evil with good is the only correct approach for two reasons – it makes room for God to bring real judgment and correction upon those injuring His children, and it allows God to bless and reward us His children in offering such unwarranted favor…
But how? What is the whole “burning coals” a reference to? Why is an Old Testament text and image so important to a New Testament attitude? Glad you asked!
The imagery the Proverb is referencing—and therefore the Romans passage—involves the Temple, the High Priest, The Day of Atonement, coals from the Altar of sacrifice, and the holy incense.
On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would take coals from the altar of burnt offering, fill his censer with the coals and incense, and enter the Holy of Holies, creating a cloud of sweet-smelling smoke that covered the Mercy Seat of the Ark—and the whole room—with a pleasing cloud calling forth for atonement… “Heaping coals on the head” was a euphemism for the High Priest and his censer and God’s mercy seat.
When we offer our enemies food and water and grace and comfort, we are acting in the way our Great High Priest—Jesus—desires, with our forgiveness and acts of kindness rising as a sweet aroma before His nostrils. In doing so, we are behaving like the Priests He has called us to be. In doing so, Jesus releases atoning grace over us as a reward. In doing so, room is made for the Great High Judge to administer judgment—and mercy—upon those who have hurt us.
There is a sweet-smelling supernatural release that impacts us—and those who have hurt us—when we behave like our High Priest, Jesus. This isn’t about shaming enemies, and this is certainly not about being weak and timid—it takes greater courage to offer grace to a bully than it does a punch! But when we leave punishment and judgment to God—when we respond to hate with unmerited love—we release a cloud of glory that smells like Jesus into Father’s merciful nostrils—and great things happen in both the spiritual and physical realm! Great release envelops us as we become ever more atoned to God, and great mercy—even in corrective wrath—is released on those who would dare to persecute a child of God.
In this cloud of atonement, we are blessed and our enemies corrected—even to salvation. What an amazing God we serve! May we all have the strength and courage and character to heap coals upon the heads of those who have hurt us—and thus fill heaven’s Holy of Holies with the sweet aroma of Jesus!