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For thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the LORD shall reward thee.
– Proverbs 25:22
We are to strive to live at peace with others and he gives us two foundational reasons and ways to do this. First, we have to give up any rights we think we have to avenge ourselves for being wronged. The reason for this is given in reference to Deuteronomy 32:35. Vengeance belongs to God. He is the judge and executer of justice. We are not to usurp his judicial purview. Jesus modeled this for us in his death (1 Peter 2:23). However, it is not that only the prerogative belongs to God, but he will revenge all injustice. So, we are to trust that to him.
Second, we respond to the unjust treatment we have received with a compassionate and patient kindness. We give bread and water to our hungering and thirsting adversary. We are to do good to them as Jesus taught in The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:44-45). Paul also quotes the result being coals of fire heaped on their heads through our actions. We know that Paul doesn’t mean we should show a fake kindness in order to fatten them for the kill. Jesus said doing so means we will be like our Father in Heaven. The phrase is best understood as bringing them to contrition, which would mean that we are seeking their good and not our own back in revenge.
These other Scriptures bring the meaning of this verse to light. Paul did not include the last phrase, “and the LORD shall reward thee.” However, understanding this phrase gives a meaning consistent with the meaning Paul used in his passage. The word for reward means to be safe, or to be completed. Actually, the word has such a broad range of meaning that it is obscure unless the immediate context, or some other passage, clarifies it. The word is used in a variety of ways in the Old Testament, but two instances will help us. The principle of restitution in the law uses this word to “make it good” (Exodus 22:14; Leviticus 24:18), referring to requiting, or repaying, one whom you have wronged. The word is used in this same vein in the other verse Paul quoted and it is there translated “recompence” (Deuteronomy 32:35). So, this proverb is teaching that compassionate and patient kindness can be shown to enemies, because the Lord will repay any vengeance necessary. This is exactly what Paul understood the proverb to mean and the way he used it in Romans 12:17-21.