Romans 12:20
Therefore if your enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing you shall heap coals of fire on his head.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
(20) Thou shalt heap coals of fire.—Comp. Psalm 18:12-14, where the phrase “coals of fire” is used of the divine vengeance. So here, but in a strictly metaphorical sense, it means, “Thou shalt take the best and most summary vengeance upon him.” There may be the underlying idea of awakening in the adversary the pangs of shame and remorse.

12:17-21 Since men became enemies to God, they have been very ready to be enemies one to another. And those that embrace religion, must expect to meet with enemies in a world whose smiles seldom agree with Christ's. Recompense to no man evil for evil. That is a brutish recompence, befitting only animals, which are not conscious of any being above them, or of any existence hereafter. And not only do, but study and take care to do, that which is amiable and creditable, and recommends religion to all with whom you converse. Study the things that make for peace; if it be possible, without offending God and wounding conscience. Avenge not yourselves. This is a hard lesson to corrupt nature, therefore a remedy against it is added. Give place unto wrath. When a man's passion is up, and the stream is strong, let it pass off; lest it be made to rage the more against us. The line of our duty is clearly marked out, and if our enemies are not melted by persevering kindness, we are not to seek vengeance; they will be consumed by the fiery wrath of that God to whom vengeance belongeth. The last verse suggests what is not easily understood by the world; that in all strife and contention, those that revenge are conquered, and those that forgive are conquerors. Be not overcome of evil. Learn to defeat ill designs against you, either to change them, or to preserve your own peace. He that has this rule over his spirit, is better than the mighty. God's children may be asked whether it is not more sweet unto them than all earthly good, that God so enables them by his Spirit, thus to feel and act.Therefore, if thine enemy hunger ... - This verse is taken almost literally from Proverbs 25:21-22. Hunger and thirst here are put for want in general. If thine enemy is needy in any way, do him good, and supply his needs. This is, in spirit, the same as the command of the Lord Jesus Matthew 5:44, "Do good to them that hate you," etc.

In so doing - It does not mean that we are to do this "for the sake" of heaping coals of fire on him, but that this will be the result.

Thou shalt heap ... - Coals of fire are doubtless emblematical of "pain." But the idea here is not that in so doing we shall call down divine vengeance on the man; but the apostle is speaking of the natural effect or result of showing him kindness. Burning coals heaped on a man's head would be expressive of intense agony. So the apostle says that the "effect" of doing good to an enemy would be to produce pain. But the pain will result from shame, remorse of conscience, a conviction of the evil of his conduct, and an apprehension of divine displeasure that may lead to repentance. To do this, is not only perfectly right, but it is desirable. If a man can be brought to reflection and true repentance, it should be done. In regard to this passage we may remark,

(1) That the way to promote "peace" is to do good even to enemies.

(2) the way to bring a man to repentance is to do him good. On this principle God is acting continually. He does good to all, even to the rebellious; and he designs that his goodness should lead people to repentance; Romans 2:4. People will resist wrath, anger, and power; but "goodness" they cannot resist; it finds its way to the heart; and the conscience does its work, and the sinner is overwhelmed at the remembrance of his crimes.

(3) if people would act on the principles of the gospel, the world would soon be at peace. No man would suffer himself many times to be overwhelmed in this way with coals of fire. It is not human nature, bad as it is; and if Christians would meet all unkindness with kindness, all malice with benevolence, and all wrong with right, peace would soon pervade the community, and even opposition to the gospel might soon die away.

20. if thine enemy hunger, &c.—This is taken from Pr 25:21, 22, which without doubt supplied the basis of those lofty precepts on that subject which form the culminating point of the Sermon on the Mount.

in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head—As the heaping of "coals of fire" is in the Old Testament the figurative expression of divine vengeance (Ps 140:10; 11:6, &c.), the true sense of these words seems to be, "That will be the most effectual vengeance—a vengeance under which he will be fain to bend" (So Alford, Hodge, &c.). Ro 12:21 confirms this.

If thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: q.d. Instead of rendering evil for evil to thine adversary, do him good for evil: see following verse.

Thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head; i.e. either make him relent, or bring down the greater vengeance from God upon him. This is taken out of Proverbs 25:21,22; See Poole on "Proverbs 25:21". See Poole on "Proverbs 25:22". Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him,.... These words are taken from Proverbs 25:21, and to be understood, as a Jewish (o) writer observes, according to "their literal sense"; though some of the Rabbins explain them in an allegorical way, of the corruption of nature. The Alexandrian copy and some others, and the Vulgate Latin version, reads "but if"; so far should the saints be from meditating revenge upon their enemies, that they should do good unto them, as Christ directs, Matthew 5:44, by feeding them when hungry, and giving drink unto them when thirsty:

if he thirst give him drink; which includes all offices of humanity and beneficence to be performed unto them: the reason, or argument inducing hereunto is,

for in so doing, thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head; not to do him hurt, not to aggravate his condemnation, as if this would be a means of bringing down the wrath of God the more fiercely on him, which is a sense given by some; as if this would be an inducement to the saints to do such acts of kindness; which is just the reverse of the spirit and temper of mind the apostle is here cultivating; but rather the sense is, that by so doing, his conscience would be stung with a sense of former injuries done to his benefactor, and he be filled with shame on account of them, and be brought to repentance for them, and to love the person he before hated, and be careful of doing him any wrong for the future; all which may be considered as a prevailing motive to God's people to act the generous part they are here moved to: in the passage referred to, Proverbs 25:21, "bread" and "water" are mentioned as to be given, which include all the necessaries of life: and it is added for encouragement, "and the Lord shall reward thee". The sense given of this passage by some of the Jewish commentators on it agrees with what has been observed in some measure; says one (p) of them,

"when he remembers the food and drink thou hast given him, thou shall burn him, as if thou puttest coals upon his head to burn him, , and "he will take care of doing thee any ill";''

that is, for the time to come: and another of them observes (q) that

"this matter will be hard unto him, as if thou heapest coals on his head to burn him, , "because of the greatness of his shame", on account of the good that he shall receive from thee, for the evil which he hath rendered to thee.''

This advice of showing kindness to enemies, and against private revenge, is very contrary to the dictates of human nature, as corrupted by sin. The former of these Julian the emperor represents (r) as a "paradox", though he owns it to be lawful, and a good action, to give clothes and food to enemies in war; and the latter, to revenge an injury, he says (s), is a law common to all men, Greeks and Barbarians; but the Gospel and the grace of God teach us another lesson.

(o) Jarchi in Proverbs 25.21. (p) R. Aben Ezra in loc. (q) R. Levi ben Gersom in loc. Vid. Tzeror Hammor, fol. 147. 2.((r) Fragment. inter opera, par. 1. p. 533. (s) Ad Atheniens. p. 501.

Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap {y} coals of fire on his head.

(y) In this manner Solomon points out the wrath of God which hangs over a man.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
Romans 12:20. Without οὖν (see the critical notes), but thus the more in conformity with the mode of expression throughout the whole chapter, which proceeds for the most part without connectives, there now follows what the Christian—seeing that he is not to avenge himself, but to let God’s wrath have its way—has rather to do in respect of his enemy.

The whole verse is borrowed from Proverbs 25:21-22, which words Paul adopts as his own, closely from the LXX.

ψώμιζε] feed him, give him to eat. See on 1 Corinthians 13:1; Grimm on Wis 16:20. The expression is affectionate. Comp. 2 Samuel 13:5; Bengel: “manu tua.” Sir 7:32ἄνθρακας πυρὸς σωρεύς. ἐπὶ τὴν κεφ. αὐτοῦ] figurative expression of the thought: painful shame and remorse wilt thou prepare for him. So, in substance, Origen, Augustine, Jerome, Ambrosiaster, Pelagius, Erasmus, Luther, Wolf, Bengel, and others, including Tholuck, Baumgarten-Crusius, Rückert, Reiche, Köllner, de Wette, Olshausen, Fritzsche, Philippi, Reithmayr, Bisping, Borger, van Hengel, Hofmann; comp. Linder in the Stud. u. Krit. 1862, p. 568 f. Glowing coals are to the Oriental a figure for pain that penetrates and cleaves to one, and in particular, according to the context, for the pain of remorse, as here, where magnanimous beneficence heaps up the coals of fire. Comp. on the subject-matter, 1 Samuel 24:17 ff. See the Arabic parallels in Gesenius in Rosenmüller’s Repert. I. p. 140, and generally Tholuck in loc.; Gesenius, Thesaur. I. p. 280. Another view was already prevalent in the time of Jerome, and is adopted by Chrysostom, Theodoret, Oecumenius, Theophylact, Photius, Beza, Camerarius, Estius, Grotius, Wetstein, and others, including Koppe, Böhme, Hengstenberg (Authent. d. Pentat. II. p. 406 f.),—namely, that the sense is: Thou wilt bring upon him severe divine punishment. Certainly at 4 Esr. 16:54 the burning of fiery coals on the head is an image of painful divine punishment; but there this view is just as certainly suggested by the context, as here (see esp. Romans 12:21) and in Prov. l.c., the context is opposed to it. For the condition nisi resipiscat would have, in the first place, to be quite arbitrarily supplied; and how could Paul have conceived and expressed so unchristian a motive for beneficence towards enemies! The saving clauses of expositors regarding this point are fanciful and quite unsatisfactory.Romans 12:20. ἀλλὰ: On the contrary, as opposed to self-avenging, and even to the merely passive resignation of one’s case to God. ἐὰν πεινᾷ κ.τ.λ. Proverbs 25:21 f. exactly as in LXX. 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. Many, however, have referred to 4 Esdr. 16:54 (Non dicat peccator se non peccasse; quoniam carbones ignis comburet super caput ejus, qui dicit: non peccavi coram Domino Deo et gloria ipsius), and argued that the coals of fire are the Divine judgments which the sinner will bring on himself unless he repents under the constraint of such love. But (1) there is nothing said here about the essential condition, “unless he repents”; this is simply imported; and (2) the aim of the Christian’s love to his enemy is thus made to be the bringing down of Divine judgment on him—which is not only absurd in itself, but in direct antagonism to the spirit of the passage.20. Therefore if thine enemy, &c.] Here again is an O. T. quotation, (Proverbs 25:21-22; nearly verbatim with LXX.,) introduced by the Apostle’s “therefore,” as a practical inference from the previous principles.

thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head] This phrase has been explained (1) of burning shame produced by requital of good for evil; (2) of the melting of the evil-doer’s heart by such conduct, as of metal by fire; (3) of the result of a spirit of love as producing at length the “incense” of prayer and praise (as from censer-coals) from the conquered heart. (The last is suggested in the Speaker’s Commentary, on Proverbs 25) A simpler, yet more inclusive, explanation is Alford’s: “in thus doing, you will be taking the most effectual vengeance;” the idea of vengeance being, in the Christian’s view, transformed, so as to become in fact the victory of love. Q. d., “You shall thus secure exactly that sort of vengeance which alone a servant of God can desire.”—The clause “and the Lord shall reward thee,” in Proverbs 25, is omitted; not as if not true (for the Gospel distinctly teaches that “good works, which are the fruits of faith, and follow after justification, … are pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ[45];”) but as not pertinent to the context here, where the ruling motive understood throughout is “the mercies of God.”

[45] Art. xii. of the Church of England.Romans 12:20. Εὰν οὖν πεινᾷψώμιζεαὐτοῦ) LXX. Proverbs 25:21-22, εὰν πεινᾷτρέφε [ψώμιζε in LXX. ed. by Holmes and Bos] αὐτοῦ, ὁ δὲ Κύριος ΑΝΤΑΠΟΔΩΣΕΙ σοι ἀγαθά. If he hunger, feed him [his head], and the Lord will repay thy good deeds. The apostles applied the phrase, it is written more to doctrines, than to morals.—ἐχθρὸς, an enemy) This especially holds good of a bitter and violent enemy.—ψώμιζε, feed) with thy hand. So LXX., 2 Samuel 13:5. Thus will even thy iron-hearted enemy be softened.—ἄνθρακας πυρὸς, coals of fire) The end of all vengeance is that an enemy may be brought to repent, and that an enemy may deliver himself into the hands of the avenger. A man will very easily attain both objects, if he treat his enemy with kindness. Both are described in this remarkable phrase; for it is such a repentance as that, which in the greatest degree burns; 4 Esd. 16:53, and an enemy becomes willingly the property of his avenger; you will then have him entirely in your power [ready at your nod to obey].—ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ, upon his head) i.e. upon himself, upon him wholly, in that part too where he will feel it most.Feed (ψώμιζε)

See on sop, John 13:26. The citation from Proverbs 25:21, Proverbs 25:22, closely follows both Hebrew and Septuagint.

Shalt heap (σωρεύσεις)

Only here and 2 Timothy 3:6.

Coals of fire

Many explain: The memory of the wrong awakened in your enemy by your kindness, shall sting him with penitence. This, however, might be open to the objection that the enemy's pain might gratify the instinct of revenge. Perhaps it is better to take it, that kindness is as effectual as coals of fire. Among the Arabs and Hebrews the figure of "coals of fire" is common as a symbol of divine punishment (Psalm 18:13). "The Arabians call things which cause very acute mental pain, burning coals of the heart and fire in the liver" (Thayer, "Lexicon"). Thomas De Quincey, referring to an author who calls this "a fiendish idea," says: "I acknowledge that to myself, in one part of my boyhood, it did seem a refinement of malice. My subtilizing habits, however, even in those days, soon suggested to me that this aggravation of guilt in the object of our forgiveness was not held out as the motive to the forgiveness, but as the result of it; secondly, that perhaps no aggravation of his guilt was the point contemplated, but the salutary stinging into life of his remorse hitherto sleeping" ("Essays on the Poets").

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