Responding with Kindness: Romans 12:20

responding kindness (3)

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c) Rom 12:20. Paul exhorted the believers in Rome to meet evil with love and courtesy, rather than seeking to avenge themselves (Rom 12:17–19).[1]

He wrote, “But if hunger the one hating you [has], feed him. If thirst, give him something to drink. For doing this, burning embers you shall heap on his head.”

The apostle quoted the Greek translation of Prov 25:21–22.[2]

However, the context of this passage in Romans does not limit our hospitality toward our enemies to giving them food and drink.[3] It alludes to various acts which express love.[4]

By behaving in such a way, we absolve those who persecute us and do good in the sight of all people (Rom 12:9–17).[5]

Should we fail to do this, we practice retaliation, albeit indirectly.[6]



A major controversy over this text has raged for millennia concerning the meaning of the phrase, “burning embers you shall heap on his head.”[7]

Within the Old Testament, “burning embers” usually refers to God’s judgment upon evil (Ps 18:7–15; Ps 140:9–11; Prov 6:28).[8]

In this homily on this text, John Chrysostom (347–407 AD) compared those who harm others to Cain (Gen 4:1–16):

He that is wronged, when he is feeble, is not taken so much with any goods of his own as with the vengeance upon the person who has pained him. For there is nothing so sweet as to see an enemy chastised…

For if anyone abuses you, he has not hurt you at all, but himself severely. And if again he wrong you, the harm will be with the person who does the wrong.

Did you never notice that even in the courts of law those who have had wrong done them are honored, and stand and speak out with entire freedom, but those who have done the wrong, are bowed down with shame and fear?…

Were he even to whet his sword against you, and to stain his right hand in your life-blood, it is not you that he has done any harm to, but himself that he has butchered…[Consider him] who was first taken off thus by a brother’s hand.

For he went away to the haven…having gained a glory that dies not away; but the other lived a life worse than any death, groaning, and trembling, and in his body bearing about the accusation of what he had done.[9]



However, Chrysostom’s view of the Lord executing greater revenge than we can does not mesh with Paul’s concern about loving our enemies.[10]

We cannot seek greater harm for our enemies by refraining from taking matters into our own hands and consider that “overcoming evil” (Rom 12:21).[11]

Consequently, Augustine (354–430) wrote, “The coals of fire are the burning lamentations of repentance by which that man’s pride is healed and he grieves that he has been an enemy of the man who relieves his misery.”[12]

Most modern commentators concur with Augustine.[13]

By meeting the contempt of our enemies with kindness, they may experience shame for their behavior and then seek to learn why we chose to respond to them with love.[14]



The concept of carrying coals of fire on one’s head as a sign of repentance appears to originate from an ancient Egyptian practice for exonerating the guilt of one’s sins.[15]

According to a text which describes the aftermath of the theft of a book of magic spells:[16]

Pharaoh said, “Setne, I did what I could for thee before, saying, ‘They will slay thee if thou take not this book to the place whence thou broughtest it,’ and until this time thou gavest no heed. Let this book be taken to [its owner], a fork and stick in thine hand, and a censer of fire on thine head.”

Setne came out from the presence of Pharaoh, a fork and stick in his hand, a censer of fire on his head.[17]

Only truly contrite people willingly carry a censer of burning coals on their heads, especially when holding other objects with both hands.



In the Aramaic paraphrase of Prov 25:21–22, some added words make the context clear.

The rabbis wrote, “Yahweh will hand him over to thee” or “Yahweh will make him thy friend.” They viewed the heaping of coals as a method to convert one’s enemy into an ally.[18]

Similarly, the Babylonian Talmud states, “The Lord…will cause it to be at peace with thee.”[19]

Consequently, Paul’s citation of this proverb most likely created positive connotations for his original audience.[20]

In fact, the apostle went even farther than prohibiting revenge.

When others bring us harm, the Lord calls to respond with kindness, moving them toward repentance. Even if our efforts fail and our enemies intensify their animosity,[21] we can emerge from the fray with a clear conscience. Our greatest example to emulate is Christ himself (1 Pet 2:21–24).[22]

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Read Rom 12:20. Why would Paul include the proverb about heaping burning coals on someone’s head after urging his readers to avoid taking revenge? What practical implication does this have for you?




Go to Overcoming Evil with Good (Rom 12:21)

[Related posts include Live in Peace (Rom 12:17–18); Leave Vengeance to God (Rom 12:19); Overcoming Evil with Good (Rom 12:21); Submitting to Governing Authorities (Rom 13:1); Engaging in Anarchy (Rom 13:2); Do What is Good (Rom 13:3); Bearing the Sword (Rom 13:4); Eve Acquires a Man (Gen 4:1); A Servant of the Ground and a Shepherd of a Flock (Gen 4:2‒5); Sin Lies Stretched Out (Gen 4:6‒7); Cain Arose against His Brother (Gen 4:8); Misappropriated Blood (Gen 4:9‒10); Cursed from the Ground (Gen 4:11‒14); Banished from God’s Presence (Gen 4:15‒16); Blood for Blood (Gen 9:5–7); By Faith (Heb 11:4); Greek Translation of the Old Testament; and Ancient Literature]

[Click here to go to Chapter 9: A Covenant with Noah (Genesis 8:20–9:17)]


[1]Moo, Romans, 417.

[2]Randall Tan, David A. DeSilva, and Isaiah Hoogendyk, eds., The Lexham Greek-English Interlinear Septuagint: H.B. Swete Edition (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2008–12), Prov 25:21–2.

[3]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:648.

[4]Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 681.

[5]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 788.

[6]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:648.

[7]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 750.

[8]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 788.

[9]John Chrystostom, Saint Chrystostom: Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistle to the Romans, in A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (NPNF1–11) (ed. Philip Schaff; trans. J. B. Morris and W. H. Simcox, revised by George B. Stevens; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1889), Homily 22, 923–4,

[10]Moo, Romans, 413.

[11]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:648–9, note 1.

[12]Augustine, Saint Augustine: Christian Instruction; Admonition and Grace; The Christian Combat; Faith, Hope and Charity (ed. Robert P. Russell, John Courtney Murray, and Bernard M. Peebles; trans. John J. Gavigan; The Fathers of the Church; Washington, DC: Catholic University of America, 1950), 136.

[13]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:649.

[14]Moo, Romans, 413.

[15]Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, 2:650.

[16]Lise Manniche, Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt (London: Routledge, 2004), 64.

[17]F. L. L. Griffith, trans., Stories of the High Priests of Memphis: The Dethon of Herodotus and the Demotic Tales of Khamaus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1900), 38, Https://

[18]Friedrich Lang, “σωρευω” (sōreuō), TDNT 7:1094–6, 1095, note 5.

[19]b. Sukkah 52a,

[20]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 751.

[21]Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, 789.

[22]Dunn, Romans 9–16, 751.