Burning Coals



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

In 2010, a colleague of mine emailed the group at 1 o’clock in the morning in a last minute attempt to find coverage for his 6 AM shift because he was so sick. I happened to be up around 4AM to bring my son to the airport for his school trip. I was off that day. I debated and struggled with whether to help or not. I sensed that I should. So I emailed him and offered to take the shift.

This kind of thing happens not infrequently at work. Colleagues cover for each other. Doctoring is one profession where you just don’t call off unless you are nearly on your deathbed.

What was profound about this situation was that, for several years before this, he was the chief opponent to my becoming a partner. In fact, just a few months before this, I had gone through probably one of the most excruciatingly painful emotional experiences of my life having been kept out of partnership by him and his allies. I knew I should help him despite what he had done to me. I sensed it was what God wanted me to do, that it would be a lesson for me and perhaps for him.

Now, nearly 3 years later, Proverbs 25:21-22 is crystal clear to me.

Pouring hot coals on your enemy’s head has never made sense to me, but I’ve come across it many times in reference to how we ought to treat our enemies.

Pouring hot coals on someone’s head would logically hurt and burn our enemy. This doesn’t sound like being good to our enemies. If anything, it should harm my enemy. Proverbs 25:22 just made no sense.

But I recently read a clear explanation on a Messianic Jewish blog. As the post explains it, in biblical times, it was a blessing to pour out hot coals on another’s head. There was no electricity back then. Fires in the hearth would heat homes. But as the coals burned out, in order to restore heat, someone would go to a neighbor with a basket on his head. The neighbor would then pour hot coals into the basket to carry back home and reignite the hearth.

Within this cultural context, this puzzling scripture makes total sense. By pouring coals on his head, you are helping rekindle your neighbor’s fireplace, heat his home and resume cooking. When you do this for your enemy, you are helping rather than retaliating. This is true Christian character. I bet this is what Paul meant—just as Jesus meant when he said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Mt 5:45.

With God’s help, I got it right that morning and poured “burning coals on his head” in an intentional act of grace.


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