Scripture in Focus:
“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).
From a Christian perspective, the proverb’s admonition that we give food and water to our enemies so that “burning coals” will be heaped upon them may seem strange indeed. Helping someone just to bring punishment on the person seems contradictory to most biblical teachings, yet this exact Old Testament proverb is also cited in the New Testament – by the apostle Paul:
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “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 12:18-20).
But we do not need to understand this proverb literally in order to understand its message. If we look at it in its original setting in the Book of Proverbs, we find that it occurs in a group of sayings that all use physical imagery to describe emotional conditions. Proverbs 25:20 – the proverb directly before the one we are looking at – tells us, for example: “ Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.” Proverbs 25:23 – the saying directly after the one we want to understand – likewise tells us: “Like a north wind that brings unexpected rain is a sly tongue — which provokes a horrified look.” All of these proverbs are not to be understood literally, rather they are meant to supply a graphic image of what a given feeling is like.
In Proverbs 25:22 we are given an analogy showing what the emotional feeling will often be like for someone who is treated kindly despite their own behavior toward the person showing the kindness. In a great many cases that feeling will be one of emotional discomfort – the flush of acute embarrassment – that might well be symbolized by having “burning coals” tipped upon the person’s head. There are other examples of the metaphorical use of “burning coals” in the Scriptures, as in 2 Samuel 14:7 which uses the image of a “burning coal” to represent a person’s heir, but the meaning of the expression in Proverbs 25 is clearly that of a feeling of emotional embarrassment and perhaps guilt.
There is a wonderful example of this principle and its effect in the Book of 2 Kings (6:8-23) which tells the story of how the Prophet Elisha asked God to strike an Aramean army that was invading Israel with blindness. When the enemy soldiers did become blind, rather than having them killed as many expected, Elisha led them to Israel’s capital city Samaria where he instructed the king of Israel to “Set food and water before them so that they may eat and drink and then go back to their master” (2 Kings 6:22). This is the exact application of the principle of giving food and drink to one’s enemies, in this case to those who had sought to harm the people of Israel.
Not surprisingly, when the sight of the enemy warriors was restored and they had been fed “a great feast” by those they originally intended to harm, we read that: “after they had finished eating and drinking, he sent them away, and they returned to their master. So the bands from Aram stopped raiding Israel’s territory” (2 Kings 6:23). The Aramean warriors who had been treated in this way felt great embarrassment at the kindness of those they had considered enemies and that feeling doubtless was responsible for their cessation of hostilities.
That is why the apostle Paul could cite Proverbs 25:21-22 as a practical example of not being overcome by evil, but overcoming evil with good (Romans 12:21). The principle of embarrassment also underlies Paul’s words to the Thessalonian church: “Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Paul knew that it is better, where possible, to embarrass others with right behavior than to ignore or reciprocate their wrongdoing. “Heaping burning coals” in the context that Paul uses the expression clearly means to cause temporary emotional discomfort that may lead to good.