“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.”
In antiquity, the physical act of this was done to someone found guilty of an offense by placing a pale with hot coals in it and forcing them to carry it about the community as an act of shaming them before the people. So we often come across scriptures like this in our bible, and though we may never hear sermons or exegetical teachings on them, we find ourselves wondering, “What in the world does that mean?” And what is this command in regard to dealing with an enemy, that we will heap coals of fire upon their head, and yet be rewarded by the Lord for it?
This statement, when filtered through the flesh nature seems like an endorsement for vengeance, much like Solomon’s “an eye for an eye” statement. But Believers do not filter anything through their flesh nature, but rather through submission to the Spirit of Grace. In reality, this passage, in context, is speaking of doing good to those who have wronged us. Despite what many believe of the Old Testament, mercy was then and is still now alive and well in the New Covenant. God has never changed in His nature, nor will He ever.
In truth, there are many Old Testament passages that command us to handle our enemies with love, mercy, and grace, (albeit those terms are defined by scripture and not by what modern society deems them to mean.) This is not a New Covenant mindset. It is and has always been the case. For example, in Proverbs 24:17.. “Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice..” So, the idea of loving our enemies did not first appear with Jesus at the “sermon on the mount”, as we refer to it.
The very essence of “heaping coals of fire upon our enemy’s head” is accomplished through returning kindness for their mistreatment of us. If we feel a vindictiveness within, in the application of this verse and others, then it is with a wrong motive that we seek to serve God. After all, we cannot truly love God and seek to do ill to those who are made as His imagers. When we bless and show God’s love to those who are undeserving, is it then that we act the most like Christ, and cause conviction and shame to fall upon those who have wronged us. Remember, it is the loving kindness of Christ that leads all to repentance.