Questions From Readers
● How, by doing kindness to a person who hates one, does one ‘rake coals together on such a person’s head,’ as stated at Proverbs 25:21, 22?—U.S.A.
Proverbs 25:21, 22 reads: “If the one hating you is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. For coals [“red-hot coals,” The Jerusalem Bible] are what you are raking together upon his head, and Jehovah himself will reward you.”
This counsel to do good to our enemies finds many parallels in the Scriptures. Thus the law of Moses required the following: “Should you come upon your enemy’s bull or his ass going astray, you are to return it without fail to him. Should you see the ass of someone who hates you lying down under its load, then you must refrain from leaving him. With him you are without fail to get it loose.”—Ex. 23:4, 5.
Jesus Christ admonishes us to the same effect: “Continue to love your enemies and to pray for those persecuting you; that you may prove yourselves sons of your Father who is in the heavens.” In a similar vein the apostle Paul wrote: “Keep on blessing those who persecute; be blessing and do not be cursing.”—Matt. 5:44, 45; Rom. 12:14.
But do not the words of Proverbs 25:22, “coals are what you are raking together upon his head,” seem to contradict the spirit of kindness evinced in Pr 25 verse 21? No, we may not so conclude, for not only were these words written by a wise man but he wrote them under the power of divine inspiration, with the help and direction of Jehovah’s holy spirit. So they must make sense.
It is quite likely that the metaphor or figurative expression here used is drawn from the method of smelting metals in ancient times. In the furnace not only was there a bed of hot coals upon which the ore was placed, but also on top of the ore was placed a bank of red-hot coals. The heaping of coals on top of the ore helped to soften it and thus to separate the metal from the dross. So, by doing kind deeds to an enemy in need, when he would be most likely to appreciate it, one can hope to soften the enemy, make him feel remorse and shame, and may even bring out the good that is in him.
That this heaping of coals of fire upon the head of an enemy is not intended to produce an evil effect but a beneficial one is apparent from what the apostle Paul says right after quoting this very proverb. His next words are: “Do not let yourself be conquered by the evil, but keep conquering the evil with the good.”—Rom. 12:20, 21.
But suppose these figurative coals of fire do not soften the heart of the enemy, then what? Then there is the comfort and satisfaction of the concluding words of Proverbs 25:22: “And Jehovah himself will reward you.” This promise in itself shows that the “red-hot coals” are not intended to harm the enemy nor do they indicate that one would gloat over the enemy’s discomfort. If we do what is noble and right, then whether others appreciate it or not, and whether we personally benefit from it or not, directly or immediately, we can be certain that Jehovah God takes note of it and will reward us in his due time. And is not He the One we are serving and trying to please?