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.
This passage has puzzled commentators through the ages. Great men of God have held different interpretations of this passage. Below is a summary of the three basic interpretations of this verse:
1. View of Divine Judgement: This view, which was held by the Early Church Father Chrysostom, states that Paul is suggesting that we do good to an enemy so that his final punishment will be more severe. A kind of reverse psychology judgment-style. As appealing as this interpretation might be to our own hearts, this interpretation does not fall in line with Paul’s general tone in the context. Paul is commanding us to overcome evil, by changing our enemies to friends. The very next verse says we are to “overcome evil with good.” Romans 12:21.
2. View of Meeting Needs: This view, expounded by Kenneth Wuest in his Word Studies in the Greek New Testament, is based on a common practice during Bible times in the Middle East. If a individual’s fire went out, they would go to a neighbor’s house to request live coals (as opposed to a cup of sugar) to rekindle their fire. Since burdens were often carried in a container balanced on the head at this time, this view sees the text as referring to the placing of live coals in a container on a neighbor’s head in answer to their need of fire for cooking and warmth. This somewhat fits the context of the passage by staying with the theme of showing kindness to your enemy by meeting his needs. However, when the grammar of the verse is considered, this too becomes an inadequate interpretation. The grammar of the verse points to the actions of feeding and giving to drink as producing the result of “heaping coals of fire on his head.”
3. View of Burning Shame: This view in my opinion has the most merit. It was held by Augustine, Jerome and Luther. Modern exponents of this view are John Stott and John MacArthur, Jr. Stated simply this view states that acts of kindness done to your enemy shame him and bring him to a place of repentance. Bible commentator James Denney wrote, “The meaning of ‘heaping burning coals on his head’ is hardly open to doubt. It must refer to the burning pain of shame and remorse which the man feels whose hostility is repaid by love. This is the only kind of vengeance the Christian is at liberty to contemplate.” Greek scholar A.T. Robertson wrote that the burning coals were a “metaphor for keen anguish.” St. Augustine said, “We should incite those who have hurt us to repentance by doing them good.” This view not only fits the grammar of the verse, but also corresponds to an ancient Egyptian custom. When a person wanted to demonstrate public contrition, he would carry on his head a pan of burning coals to represent the burning pain of his shame and guilt.
The above interpretation provides a dramatic picture of how God deals with man in goodness to lead him to repentance. As Romans 2:4 states, “knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance?” Likewise, in the verse we have been examining, we are commanded to do good to our enemies to produce a state of repentance in them. Martin Luther comments, “God converts those whom He does convert by showing them goodness. It is only in this way that we can convert a person, namely, by showing him kindness and love.” Wasn’t this the very way that God responded to His enemies at Calvary? As commentator John Phillips has written,
The cross represents the greatest manifestation of the hatred in the heart of man toward God and at the same time the greatest manifestation of the love in the heart of God toward man. That very spear which pierced the Saviour’s side drew forth the blood that saves” (Phillips, John. Exploring Romans. p. 211).
So do you have enemies? Do you want to get rid of them? Try showing kindness to them! Then not only will you have gotten rid of an enemy, you will also have gained a friend!