What is going on here? Is this a tolerable way for Christians to behave? Should we all be doing it? And before you ask, no, it has nothing to do with helping them to keep the fire going.
The larger concern in this section of Romans is how the believers will react to persecution. At least, we have: “be patient in tribulation… Bless those who persecute you… Repay no one evil for evil….” So Paul addresses the urge to retaliate to hostility:
Do not avenge (ekdikountes) yourselves, beloved, but give place to the wrath, for it is written, “Vengeance (ekdikēsis) is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” But “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for doing this, you will heap coals of fire upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. (Rom. 12:19-21*)
The two Old Testament texts cited determine the scope and sense of the argument.
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay”
The Song of Moses is an indictment of a future “crooked and twisted generation of Israel” (Deut. 32:5, 20)—not all Jews at all times, but a particular historical generation. Jesus and his followers use much the same language about first century Israel (e.g., Matt. 12:39, 45; 16:4; Mk. 8:38; Lk. 9:41; Acts 2:40), which will suffer the catastrophe of the war against Rome (Matt. 23:36).
Moses says that this wayward generation has made YHWH “jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols”; therefore, he will “make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.” The anger of YHWH has kindled a fire that “burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains” (Deut. 32:20-22). Therefore, he will “heap disasters upon them,” and so on. In brief, vengeance and recompense belong to YHWH; “in a day of vengeance (ekdikēseōs) I will repay” (32:34 LXX).
Paul thus invokes a vivid and well known narrative of judgment against an unrighteous generation of Israel—a narrative of “wrath against the Jew,” in other words. He has already drawn on the theme of the provocation of the Jews to jealousy (Rom. 10:19; 11:11, 14), but here the thought is that God will eventually give God’s elect (Rom. 8:33; 11:7) justice against their persecutors.
This is a persistent New Testament theme.
Jesus tells the story of a widow who demands of a cynical judge that he give her “justice” (ekdikēson) against her adversary (Lk. 18:1-8). This accompanies an exhortation to pray under all circumstances and not lose heart—just as Paul follows “be patient in tribulation” with “be constant in prayer” (Rom. 12:12). Jesus’ disciples are in no position to exact vengeance themselves, but God will “give justice (ekdikēsin) to his elect, who cry to him day and night” (Lk. 18:7).
Luke’s Jesus also characterises the Roman assault against Jerusalem as “days of vengeance (ekdikeseōs), to fulfil all that is written” (Lk. 21:22).
The writer to the Hebrews applies the Deuteronomy passage directly to the Jewish-Christian community: ‘For we know him who said, “Vengeance (ekdikēsis) is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people”’ (Heb. 10:30).
Finally, the “souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne” cry out to God, “how long before you will judge and avenge (ekdikeis) our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). When God finally judges the “great prostitute” of Roman power, it is said that he “has avenged (exedikēsen) the blood of his servants out of her hand” (19:2*).
“You will heap burning coals on his head”
The point is reinforced with a quotation from Proverbs: “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head” (Rom. 12:20; cf. Prov. 25:21-22). Paul omits the concluding “and the LORD will reward you.”
The wisdom saying has no narrative context of its own, but it acquires a clear eschatological interpretive frame as Paul uses it. The phrase “heap burning coals on his head” must have something to do with the coming day of vengeance and the wrath of God, against the Jew first, perhaps also against the Greek.
In a psalm that has already been quoted with reference to the inveterate wickednesss of Israel (Rom. 3:13; cf. Ps. 139:3 LXX = 140:3 MT), David prays for deliverance from evil and unjust people who scheme against him, then declares:
As for the head of those who surround me, let the mischief of their lips overwhelm them! Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise! Let not the slanderer be established in the land; let evil hunt down the violent man speedily! (Ps. 140:9-11)
The Hebrew word for “burning coals” here is the same as in Proverbs 25:22; the Septuagint has “Coals (anthrakes) will fall on them, in fire you will throw them down….”
It seems, therefore, that Paul has combined these two thoughts. In the first place, as “righteous” alternatives to the synagogues, the churches experience violent opposition from the Jews, who scheme against them. Their response should not be to seek vengeance but to “overcome evil” by going out of their way to do good. In some way (I’ll explain how in a moment), this will only intensify or aggravate the coming experience of wrath against the Jews.
Douglas Moo notices that the prohibition of vengeance in the Old Testament and other Jewish writings “tends to be confined to relations with co-religionists,” but he assumes that Paul extends the idea to cover “enemies,” as Jesus did.1 But we have seen that very often the “enemies” are indeed a person’s “co-religionists,” other Jews. It’s possible that Paul also has mind pagan hostility to the saints in Rome and a subsequent day of wrath against the Greek, but the Old Testament background to the argument must keep the Jewish narrative in the foreground.
The eschatological reason for overcoming evil with good
Moo admits that, on the face of it, the eschatological interpretation is the most likely one:
Paul may then view our giving of food and water to the enemy to be means by which if such actions do not lead to repentance the enemy’s guilt before the Lord will be increased, leading in turn to an increase in the severity of his or her judgment. 2
But he thinks the context does not permit this because it appears to condone just the sort of “spirit of retaliation” that Paul discourages in this passage. So he goes along with the majority of modern commentators in thinking that “coals of fire” is a metaphor for the “burning pangs of shame.”
Acting kindly toward our enemies is a means of leading them to be ashamed of their conduct toward us and, perhaps, to repent and turn to the Lord whose love we embody.3
Paul’s concern, in the first place, is that the believers should, as far as possible, secure a safe and irreproachable space for themselves in Roman society—by giving thought to what is honourable in the sight of all people, by maintaining peace with all people (Rom. 12:17-18). It is a matter of the public standing of the community.
The practical objection to retaliation against the Jews is that it will jeopardise the security of the church in Rome. Is Paul thinking of the recent “Chrestus” riots that got the Jews, including Jewish believers, expelled from Rome under Claudius (cf. Acts 18:2; Suetonius, The Deified Claudius 25.4)? Notice, too, that he continues to urge submission to the governing authorities in the next paragraph (13:1-7).
If the Christians stay out of the fights, better still if they “retaliate” with acts of goodness, their behaviour will set the Jews apart as the troublemakers, in that way making a clear moral and judicial “place” (topon) for the wrath of God to be executed by Rome against the Jews, when the time comes. Paul does not want the Christians to be caught up in the calamity because of their indiscipline.