“Coals of Fire”

Question: What does “heaping of burning coals” in Romans 12:20 mean?

How do I understand the meaning of Romans 12:20—”But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing, you will heap burning coals upon his head.” I understand the first part, but not the last section—”the heaping of burning coals.” Help me please.


Does sound a little strange, doesn’t it! You have to consider this verse in context with Romans 12:14-21, which speaks of Christians and our relationship to those with whom we come in contact in the world, especially those who might be considered enemies. We are already warned in Scripture that we are going to be met with opposition for our Christian beliefs. Remember these words of Jesus in John 15:20? “… If they persecute me, they will also persecute you….” Paul begins this series of verses with: “Bless those who persecute you, bless and curse not.” Obviously, we can only do this under the controlling power of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

Notice Paul’s admonitions beginning in verse 17:

  • Never pay back evil for evil
  • Respect what is right in the sight of all men
  • If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men
  • Never take your own revenge—leave that for God
  • If your enemy is hungry, feed him
  • If he is thirsty, give him a drink
  • verse 21: “do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Now the “burning coals.” Notice that these same words are found in Proverbs 25:21-22 and repeated by Paul here in Romans 12. People who are offended by our Christian walk and actions do not know how to respond to acts of kindness on our part. This confuses them. They expect “an eye for an eye!” They may be looking for vengeance being our response to them, but, as Christians, we must know and believe that “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Vs. 19)

Wrap Up on Coals of Fire

Our words and/or response of kindness will reap a burning sense of shame on them— symbolized by “coals of fire.” Here is the paraphrase of this verse from the Living Bible: “Instead, feed your enemy if he is hungry. If he is thirsty give him something to drink and you will be ‘heaping coals of fire on his head.’ In other words, he will feel ashamed of him­self for what he has done to you.”

Hope this is helpful.

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