How to Win Fights
1. Remember Christ’s Command - vs. 14-16
2. Plan Your Response - vs. 17
3. Pursue Peace - vs. 18
4. Revenge is Not an Option - vs. 19
5. Overcome with Good - vs. 20-21
The enigmatic imagery of heaping coals of fire on the enemy’s head supplies the reason why (γάρ) believers should show kindness to their enemies. The most straightforward reading of the statement is that one actually harms one’s enemies by “lovingly” meeting their needs. It is difficult to imagine, however, that this is the right meaning of this maxim either in Proverbs or in Paul. “The book of Proverbs,” says Bruce Waltke, “rejects any form of personal revenge (17:13; 20:22; 24:17, 18),” leaving it instead to God. Paul, for his part, started the ethical admonitions of 12:9–21 with the unambiguous command, “Let love be without pretense” (v. 9), and then urged his readers to “bless” their persecutors (v. 14). It would be odd indeed if Paul now brought this section to a close by advising believers to use pretension of love as a means of luring their enemies into a fiery trap of eschatological judgment.
Perhaps, then, Paul is simply nuancing slightly the idea of 12:19 by encouraging believers to leave the judgment of their enemies’ evil deeds to God. This interpretation has the great advantage of taking “fiery coals on [the] head” as an image of God’s judgment, which is the way the expression tends to be used in other ancient Jewish literature (e.g., Ps 140:9–10; 2 Esd 16:53). Here in 12:20, however, it is not God who piles fiery coals on the enemy’s head but the believer who does this by means of kindness.
It seems likely, then, that Paul refers not to the eschatological judgment of God but to the present effect of the believer’s kindness on an enemy. Precisely what effect Paul has in mind is not clear from the image. A number of interpreters down through the centuries have understood the statement as a reference to the burning shame an enemy feels when treated with kindness by those whom he or she has mistreated.63 It is unnecessary, however, to be so specific, and it may be best to admit that we do not know precisely what the imagery means. Paul’s basic point, however, is clear, and Lagrange has described it succinctly: “ ‘To have burning coals on the head’ constitutes a most painful situation, and a situation that is easy to exit, if one wants to. The idea is that the enemy would feel defeated by such generosity and disposed to better sentiments.”