From the same Grand Rapids reader whose question we answered in our last issue I received the following question: “I also have a text which bothers me personally: Rom. 12:20. Will you please define the phrase ‘Heap coals of fire on his head?’ And why is that commendable?”
First of all, let us get the text in question in its context before our minds. To do this we must look at verses 19-21: “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. Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.”
I think it is important for the understanding of verse 20, and particularly for the understanding of the expression in question, that we understand clearly the admonition of verse 19. This is true, not because the admonition as such is not clear: for it is very plain, “avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath.” But it is true from a practical, spiritual point of view; an admonition of this kind is one of the most difficult to heed because it is contrary to our every natural inclination, Our very first inclination is to do exactly the opposite of what this passage teaches us. Hence, to understand the expression about which my questioner asks, it is necessary to understand clearly and in its full thrust the admonition not to avenge ourselves, but rather give place unto wrath. And we must also understand the reason given: “for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord.” Only then can we understand the admonition given in verse 20, “Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him,” etc. This is very plain from the fact that the admonition of verse 20 follows the teaching of verse 19 as a conclusion, “Therefore. . . ..” Hence, let us briefly look at verse 19 first.
In considering verse 19, we may ask first of all: what is the idea of vengeance? And then we may answer that vengeance is a covenant idea. It presupposes the relation of friendship, of love, between God and His people. This is also the reason why the apostle introduces this admonition by the words “Dearly beloved.” The reference is not to the apostle’s beloved, but to God’s beloved. And this covenant relation of love between God and His people implies, as the Scriptures also literally teach, “I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee.” In the second place, vengeance implies injured love. It presupposes that as God’s people we walk in the world as His beloved. We walk as friends of God, keeping His precepts and glorifying His Name. We walk as children of light. In that position and in that walk, all things are ours by right, in Christ. They do not belong to the ungodly; but they belong to us, the friends of God. We are heirs of the world. But we are persecuted for Christ’s sake. The ungodly world takes everything away from us, and it causes us to suffer, leaving us no standing room in the midst of the world. It does this because it hates God, and therefore hates the friends of God. And it manifests this hatred according as and in the measure that the people of God reveal themselves as friends of God in the midst of the world. And because we are the friends of God, His covenant people, the hatred and the persecution of the people of God by the world cause the love of God to be provoked to wrath. Thus it is in history. The saints of the old dispensation suffered the reproach of Christ. And the saints of the new dispensation, even until the time of Antichrist, suffer that same reproach. And Christ Himself stands in the center of that history. He did no evil, neither was guile found in His mouth. But Christ and His people all through history are the object of the bitter enmity and reproach and opposition and persecution of the ungodly world.
And all this calls for vengeance.
What is vengeance? True vengeance is justice. It is not merely the recompensing of evil for evil. This is the idea of wrath and revenge among men. And then usually that wrath and revenge are not characterized by any justice whatsoever. But vengeance in the true sense of the word is justice. It is the execution of just wrath.
This vengeance, which is the execution of just wrath, consists with respect to the ungodly world in this, that they be dispossessed of all things, to which they laid claim all through the history of the world and of which they deprive the people of God to whom these things rightfully belong. And, secondly, this vengeance with respect to the ungodly world consists in this, that they be punished for all their hatred and persecution of the people of God. On the other hand, with respect to the godly, this vengeance, the execution of justice, implies that they be publicly justified before their enemies; and it implies that they become the possessors of all things. Such, briefly, is the idea of this vengeance.
For this vengeance the people of God cry. It is the object of their longing. The text certainly does not mean, and cannot mean, that God’s people may not long for that just revenge. Scripture never presents matters, thus. Vengeance is justice, holy justice, the bringing to light of the right, for God’s sake, and that through the recompensing of the enemies of God’s people. And for this vengeance God’s people long. David cries for such vengeance in almost all of his psalms. God’s people cry day and night for such vengeance, The parable of the unjust judge teaches us this. And in the book of Revelation, the souls under the altar, who have suffered for the sake of God’s Name, are presented as crying “with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” And all of history cries out for such vengeance, thesetting straight of all things.
But the point is that vengeance belongs to God. It is God’s affair. Our affair is to do well, also over against the enemies. But God’s affair is that He is our covenant Friend. We are His beloved. And to take care of our rights, of our justice, is His concern. We therefore leave our enemies to Him for time and for eternity. “Beloved, avenge not yourselves, for that belongs to God.”
This leads us to the positive thrust of verse 19: vengeance is a divine prerogative. God’s alone is the vengeance. This is the reason for the “it is written” from Deut. 32:35. The apostle reminds the people of God that the ground for the admonition not to avenge ourselves lies in the declared will of God, according to which vengeance is strictly His prerogative. Vengeance belongs to Him. And not only does it belong to Him’ but He will take care of it, too. “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” This is true, in the first place, because this vengeance concerns God’s glory. The covenant is His. Hence, God’s glory, God’s righteousness, God’s holiness, are concerned when God’s people are persecuted in the midst of the world. This is true, in the second place, because God’s is the sole right to judge. Vengeance implies judgment. It implies the authority to judge and to pronounce judgment. It implies the might and the power to pronounce such judgment according to strictest justice. And it implies the power to execute that judgment and to recompense according to the just desserts of its objects. This all belongs to God. God’s alone is the authority and the ability to judge. He has never delegated that to us. All judgment belongs unto God, never to us. God’s alone is the ability to judge according to justice. He Himself is the standard of all righteousness and justice. And God’s alone is the power to execute judgment and to recompense according to justice, to carry out His own judgment even unto the very end.
This is the ground for the negative admonition, “avenge not yourselves.” As I suggested in my introductory remarks, we are inclined to avenge ourselves, and inclined very much to do so. On the one hand, this is because of our own sinful flesh. It is the inclination of our sinful nature to do the very opposite of what this passage teaches. It is our inclination to revile when we are reviled, to do evil when evil is done us. It is our inclination to take matters into our own hands, to take the sword, to strike back when we are struck. In all this there is neither judgment, nor justice, nor recompense, but only a giving place to the devil. In the second place, we are inclined to take matters into our own hands and to avenge ourselves because it seems to us very often as though God’s vengeance tarries and is delayed. We become impatient. But all such vengeance on our part is wrong because vengeance is not our right, nor is it within our ability, nor can we exercise vengeance in any way except sinfully. On the contrary, it is our calling always to do well, a calling which is concretely pictured in the words of verse 20, “if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink.”
Positively the apostle admonishes the people of God, “but give place unto wrath.” This expression has been given several interpretations. According to some, the apostle means that we should give place to our own wrath. Then the meaning would be that we become tilled with wrath because of injustice that is done us. But we must give place to this wrath: we must not act in wrath, but wait until our wrath has cooled off. This, however, is not in harmony with the meaning of the term. To “give place” means “to make room for the full working out.” Besides, sinful wrath is already itself sin. Others have explained this admonition as meaning that we must give place to the wrath of our enemies. We must not fight against the wrath of our enemies by taking vengeance against them, but we must give place to their wrath, in order to let it work itself out upon us fully. This also is impossible: for then the text would mean that we must simply offer ourselves as the objects of the wrath of our enemies.
When the text admonishes us to give place unto wrath, the idea is that we must give place unto the wrath of God. God loves us. And He is terribly angry over the injustice and the reproach and the injury done to His people. He who touches His people touches the apple of God’s eye, And the point of the text is that we must make room for the wrath of God to wreak vengeance upon our enemies. We must not stand in the same place of the execution of God’s wrath with them. This is exactly what we would be doing if we would recompense evil for evil. If we do that, then we become the just object of the wrath of God ourselves. Hence, the point of the text is that we must not go and stand in the way of the full working out of that wrath of God by being ourselves evil and by assuming the prerogative of vengeance which belongs to God only. Then we are trying to do God’s work, and then we become ourselves the objects of that wrath. On the contrary, we must always do well. We must bless them that curse us. We must do good to them that hate us. We must feed our hungry enemy, and give drink to our thirsty enemy. We must conduct ourselves so that in the day of judgment no one can say of us that we also did evil. Hence, we must give place to wrath, and not stand in the same place of the working out of the wrath of God as that in which our enemies stand. A concrete illustration of this idea of giving place unto wrath you have in the history of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. God’s wrath struck them, so that the earth swallowed them up. But before this took place, the people were exhorted to depart from that spot, lest they also be swallowed up by the wrath of God: they had to give place to the wrath of God.
Finally, we ought to notice that the text does not merely emphasize that the execution of vengeance is an exclusively divine prerogative. But it purposes to emphasize that God also will certainly avenge His people, and that this is a ground for the exhortation not to avenge ourselves. This is emphasized not only in the last part of the quotation from Deuteronomy, “I will recompense.” But it is also emphasized in the first part of the quotation, “Vengeance belongeth unto me.” Literally the text is: “There is vengeance with me.” That this is the emphasis is very plain from the context in Deut. 32:35. There you read very briefly and literally: “To me vengeance, and recompense.” But notice the context in the very same verse: “Their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste. For the Lord shall judge His people, and repent Himself for his servants.” You find the same emphasis in Hebrews 10:30: “For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people.”
Hence, there is a ground here for the admonition. Give place to wrath. Do not stand at the place of the ungodly. Principally, turn to and stay with Christ, His cross, His resurrection. For there the thunderbolts of God’s wrath will not strike. And there you find Him Who when He was reviled, reviled not again, but committed Himself to Him that judgeth righteously. Let His mind be in you. For the Lord will recompense. You need not avenge yourself. You need not fear that you will not be avenged. Because the Lord will certainly and quickly and completely take vengeance, will dispossess all His and our enemies, and punish them for all their wicked oppression, we may safely leave the matter of vengeance to Him. And we may be assured that He will surely make His people in Christ Jesus heirs of all things in the new creation forever.
Now it is in the context of this very serious admonition that we find the expression about which my questioner asks. Because vengeance belongs to the Lord, because the Lord will certainly repay, because, therefore, we must not avenge ourselves, but rather give place unto wrath, therefore, according to verse 20, we must do good to our enemy. We must not only not take vengeance; but we must do the very opposite: if thine enemy hunger, feed him; and if he thirst, give him to drink. And the apostle adds as a reason that in so doing “thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.” This verse is also a quotation from the Old Testament,Prov. 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.”
As to the meaning of the expression “thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head,” it is evident that we have to do here with a figure of speech. And while the precise origin of this figure may not be clear, so that commentators differ about this, the meaning of the figure as such, it seems to me, is very plain. To heap coals of fire on one’s head is a very graphic and concrete expression for inflicting vehement, burning pain, so that one reels and bows his head in order to escape it. But the question is: what is the meaning and the application of this figure in this particular context? What does this have to do, in the first place, with doing good to our enemies? For we must notice that the text says explicitly: “for in so doing,” that is, in showing kindness to your enemy, in feeding him when he is hungry, and in giving him to drink when he is thirsty. This very action, therefore, is a heaping of coals of fire upon his head, that is, the inflicting of a vehement, burning pain. The showing of kindness is at the same time the inflicting of a burning pain. And, in the second place, the question is: how is this to be harmonized with not taking vengeance?
Some have explained this expression to mean that our enemies will be much more severely punished if we leave them in the hands of God, than if we undertake to avenge ourselves. According to them, the text is an encouragement to heap kindness and benefits on the head of the evil doer in order to aggravate the punishment with which God shall visit him. There are, I think, more reasons than one why this cannot be the correct interpretation. In the first place, this is hardly in harmony with the idea of heaping burning coals on one’s head. For under this interpretation the vengeance of God which one brings down upon the enemy can be no other than the future vengeance. In the second place, it seems to me that this explanation is exactly contrary to the admonition not to avenge ourselves: for in this case we are doing kindness to our enemy exactly out of the motive and desire of vengeance, that is, to bring down the divine wrath upon him. And this certainly is not in harmony with the idea of doing kindness; it certainly is not true kindness when one shows this kindness out of the motive of bringing down the wrath of God upon someone. In the third place, we must not overlook the fact that this kindness, in the light of Scripture, must not be mere outward kindness, or beneficence, but must be the manifestation of the love of Christ. For thus we are enjoined in Matthew 5 and other passages, “Love your enemies.” And in the fourth place, it seems to me that this is contrary to the admonition of giving place to wrath: for in this case we ourselves by such action exactly stand where the enemy stands, that is, in the place of God’s wrath by our wrong behavior and seeking of vengeance.
A second, closely related, explanation is that by heaping undeserved kindness upon an enemy “thou wilt thus bring on him the greatest pain, and appease thy vengeance, while at the same time Jehovah will reward thy generosity.” This explains the text somewhat in the sense of slaying one’s enemy with kindness. The commentator Delitzsch, in his commentary on the passage in Proverbs 25, writes concerning this: “Now we say, indeed, that he who rewards evil with good takes the noblest revenge; but if this doing of good proceed from a revengeful aim, and is intended sensibly to humble an adversary, then it loses all its moral worth, and is changed into selfish, malicious wickedness. Must the proverb then be understood in this ignoble sense?” We therefore reject this suggestion also as being contrary to the injunction against taking vengeance, as well as contrary to the injunction of Scripture to love our enemies.
It seems to me that the heaping of kindness upon one’s enemy, and that, too, as a one-sided manifestation of the love of God toward one who manifests hatred toward us, is like unto the heaping of burning coals on one’s head, in the first place, in that it is a wholesome action, proceeding not from the desire of any vengeance, but from love. In the second place, it is an action which in its very nature, as being the very opposite of the action of the enemy and as being the opposite of what anyone would expect is something that produces burning pain in the consciousness and the conscience of that enemy. For in its very nature it completely puts to shame the hatred and the wrong doing of that enemy. As such it produces pain, just as burning coals laid on the head. It produces the wholesome consequence of the burning pain of self-accusation, and thus, either of remorse or eventually of repentance. If this action on our part is accompanied also by the grace of God, then it will lead to repentance on the part of the enemy and of his salvation. If, on the other hand, it is not accompanied by the grace of God operating in that enemy, it will lead to nothing more than self-accusation and remorse, and thus to his hardening and damnation. What the ultimate effect may be, however, is not our responsibility. Our only responsibility is that we do not avenge ourselves, but rather give place to wrath, and that therefore we show kindness to our enemies, and leave all vengeance and recompense to the Lord our God. Only thus are we not conquered by evil, but conquer evil with good.