“I’m really looking forward to pouring burning coals on my enemy’s head.
“That’s what Romans 12 says I’m going to do. (It’s in the New Testament, you know.) Even after he’s been oppressing me, if he’s hungry I’m going to feed him, and if he’s thirsty I’m going to give him a drink, because the Bible (the NEW TESTAMENT you know) says that when this happens I’m going to be heaping BURNING COALS on his head. He’s going to feel so guilty and ashamed of what he’s done it’s going to be like I got a fire all lit up in his hair and scalded him with white-hot barbecue rocks. Ahahahaaaa…”
If you’ve ever read the end of Romans 12 and thought the above then…you need to read this post. And if you’ve ever read the end of Romans 12 and scratched your head trying to square it with what you know of Christian character and desire then…read on.
Vengeance is mine, says…
Here’s the text: (Rom 12:14-21 NASB)
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
If you looked at the whole context of Romans 12, you wouldn’t expect for one minute to find a phrase about pouring coals on anyone’s head. Even if it’s your enemy. Even if they were really really mean. Even if it’s figurative. “Bless those who persecute you,” says Paul. “Never pay back evil for evil. Be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge…but leave room for the wrath of God…” Paul even quotes Deuteronomy 32:35 stating most unambiguously, “‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.” There can be no sense, figuratively or literally, slightly or completely, in which we ought to be able to excuse ourselves taking any possible measure of vengeance. PERIOD.
Which is why many get curious about the ‘coals on the head’ bit. Read some commentaries and it sounds like the weight of guilt piled on your enemy by your kind charity is brings some kind of crushing guilt upon them and virtually leads them to full-blown repentance. Well, maybe. But a glance at history would seem to indicate that that hasn’t always happened. Not even very often, perhaps. Maybe even rarely. A Dutch Christian once escaped from jail and began to flee. He was so starved and lightweight that he simply skipped across a frozen lake; the heavily-laden soldiers pursuing him fell through the ice and began sinking. When the Christian turned and, instead of allowing vengeance to be done, helped them out of the freezing water, did the soldiers experience the ‘burning coals’ of sorrow and regret? No; they marched him back to the town and had him executed.
So, I repeat – history doesn’t seem to bear out the common interpretation here. But that’s not even the point. If that was what Paul really meant here (despite history) – that we should expect our charity to induce a massive guilt-trip – then isn’t this really just a subtle, under-handed attempt at vengeance? Is that what we want? Do we want to inflict guilt? And what does that say about me? Have I really learnt from the context? And, come to think of it, how does it fit with the context?
This is a chapter about Christian worship. The behaviour of the individual as a member of the church. A brazenly and unashamedly idealised picture of the church as it should be – just read it in the Message version. It begins with one of the most profound statements on worship in the whole Bible:
…in view of the mercies of God, present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. (Rom 12:1)
Here it is in the Message:
Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.
As it turns out, this principle might come to govern even more of what Paul has to say in the ensuing chapter than we realised.
I began my reflections on our problem-verse (the one about coals) a few years ago when I heard someone suggest that it could be about atonement. Ah, I thought, that seems better! That fits with what I know about how Jesus wants me to behave – not seeking underhand vengeance but wanting the better for my enemy.
And yet it never quite squared. For one thing, Christ alone provides the atonement. Perhaps I can help my enemy along the way towards that, but they still have to come to that place themselves. I can’t atone for them by feeding them when they’re hungry. And again history doesn’t seem to bear the witness of Christians’ enemies being atoned for – very often their judgment has still become apparent (but that’s a history discussion for another day.) But I liked where the picture came from – that of the altar.
True, the altar of sacrifice was where the people’s sins were atoned for. Burning coals were heaped up there. In Isaiah 6, after the prophet cries out ‘woe’ for being a man of unclean lips, an angel brings a burning coal from the altar and touches his tongue with it, thus removing his sin. So you can understand the suggestion that it’s about atonement. But my objections were as listed above.
Then more recently, I landed on the view that I hold now, and have become more fully convinced of as I’ve meditated on it. It’s not about atonement per se; it’s about worship. Bearing in mind Paul’s Jewish upbringing – and his use of Jewish Scriptures here both in the ‘vengeance’ quote and in the ‘burning coals’ quote (Prov 25:21-22) – the imagery of burning coals would almost certainly have been associated not just with atonement specifically but with the general act which was often centred around altars – worship of YHWH.
Remember – ‘offer your bodies a living sacrifice’. And if you’re going to offer your bodies – a synecdoche for our very lives – as a sacrifice, you need somewhere to lay the sacrifice. And burn it. What better place to sacrifice than in the very place that every fibre of our being might be crying out for vengeance? Choosing the way of love instead of retribution sounds like a bit of a sacrifice for this earth-bound flesh. It sounds like I’m the one about to get burned up. Pour out burning coals in the place where the world would throw one more punch in the endless downward spiral of violence. Give your enemy a drink instead of a foul word. A piece of bread instead of a bomb. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. “You just live in love as Christ loved you and gave himself for you.” This isn’t about the enemy; that’s between him and God. It’s about my response, and the church’s response – as it is for the whole chapter.
In summary then: Romans 12:20-21 comes in the context of what worship looks like in the Christian life, a subject which is introduced in 12:1. It invokes the familiar Old Testament language of the altar and gives it new and strikingly different meaning (characteristic of virtually all NT use of OT imagery) by showing us that our sacrifice of worship takes place in the moment where, with Christ, we choose to love our enemy rather than taking revenge. In this way we worship God with our very lives; we become ‘living sacrifices’ on the altar of our enemy’s actions against us, by loving them still.