David recollected that as a young lad, with long unruly hair and a ruddy complexion, sleeping out in an open pasture under a starry sky after watching his father’s sheep all day long; how he would take his little harp and sing to the God above all gods. Looking up, he saw the sky as a huge tent with the sparkling stars as lights that lit up the night. He may have even tried to count them once or twice. But what really impressed him was that each night every star was in exactly the same place, not one of them was missing. He was so overcome with awe that he penned a hymn to the creator of that starry universe.

O my LORD Eternal and heavenly Master, Your awe-inspiring works mark You as a genius, as You display Your grandeur all over the heavens for all the world to see. For through these small and tiny dots of light You communicate as a way of countering those who don’t take You seriously; yes, You do this to silence the doubter and unbeliever. When I look up into the sky and see the galaxies Your hands created, the stars and the moon You put into orbit I ask, “What role do humans play in this vast universe; why do You care and fuss over them?” Then I realized, You created them a little short of being angels; endowing them with attributes of honor and dignity; making them the smartest and most influential creatures on earth; putting them in charge to being stewards of Your handiwork, even taking care of the animals, both domestic and wild, including the birds that fill the sky and the fish that fill the sea. O LORD Eternal and heavenly Master, Your awe-inspiring works mark You as a genius for all the world to see.” Psalm 8:1-9

Reflection: Back in the days of the hippy movement I sat in a coffee house in Stuttgart, Germany talking with a long-haired flower-child about God. The young man was respectful but adamant about his doubts concerning God’s existence because he couldn’t see Him or talk to Him. At that moment the Holy Spirit gave me an inspiration, so I pointed to a picture hanging on the wall beside our table and asked the young man if he believed that picture came into being due to an accidental collision of paint and paper. He laughed and said, “That’s ridiculous; that picture was painted by an artist.” I responded that I wasn’t convinced because I couldn’t see the artist in the picture; how did I know that maybe one day it just appeared on the wall by accident. The young fellow looked at me for a moment and then admitted that even though I couldn’t see the artist in the painting, I had to accept the fact that an artist painted the picture because it just makes sense. I told him that in the same way, one must exercise faith to believe an unseen talented artist created such a beautiful portrait, we can also believe an unseen God created the beauty of the universe. The magnificence of God’s creation shows His responsibility for man’s existence, and man’s responsibility to acknowledge God’s handiwork. The young man smiled somewhat embarrassingly as he bowed his head and said, “Okay, you got me on that one.” I asked him if we could have prayer for him to have faith, but he wasn’t sure. As he went away I asked the Holy Spirit to go with him and open his eyes to the truth.

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Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Spurgeon also asks us to listen, especially if we claim that Christ is our Master, in order to do what He is telling us to do. Instead of cringing in fear because we think His commandments are too challenging for most believers, go to Him in prayer and ask Him: “Lord, please increase my faith, and give me more of Your Spirit.” To forgive seventy times seven was not too hard for His disciples, so why should it be that hard for us?1 Also, while hanging on the cross, didn’t our Lord ask His Father to forgive those who beat Him and were crucifying Him because they really didn’t know it was all part of God’s plan? If this was in Christ to do it, and Christ is in us, then let Him help us do the same. Take this as part of our calling. This requires a sanctified attitude, that’s why we need Divine grace to make it possible. If we claim that we want to be nearer to God, then for this reason alone we should desire to become a more worthy follower of Jesus. It is something we should all aim at with all our heart.2

Professor F. F. Bruce also has something to say about piling hot coals someone’s head. He begins by pointing out that in Paul’s quote from Proverbs 25:21–22, he omits the concluding clause: “and the Lord will reward you.” The original intent of this admonition may have been: “Treat your enemy kindly, for that will increase their guilt. It will also ensure for them a more terrible punishment and for you a better reward from God.” But another view is that the proverb actually refers to an Egyptian ritual in which a man testified publicly to his remorse by carrying a pan of burning charcoal around on his head.

I found another reference that portrayed it this way: When someone realized they were in error, they would take coals from a fire, put them in a pan, put a towel upon their head, and carry the pan throughout the village, declaring they were burning out the bad thinking of the past. It was another way of admitting their wrong, repenting of their past failure, and pledging never to do it again.3 In any case, by placing the proverb in this context and omitting the last clause, Paul gives it a nobler meaning: “Treat your enemy kindly, for that may make him ashamed and lead to his repentance.” In other words, the best way to get rid of an enemy is to turn them into a friend, and so overcome evil with good.4

Verse 21: Don’t let evil defeat you, but defeat evil by doing good.

After saying all this, Paul now points to the effect of returning good for evil, kindness for rudeness. He says it will be a win-win situation. You will be victorious and evil will be defeated. This same idea was expressed by Solomon when he said: “He who controls his temper is better than a war hero, he who rules his spirit better than he who captures a city.5 It reminds us again of what Jesus taught: “Love those who work against you. Do good to those who hate you. Respect and give thanks for those who try to bring bad to you. Pray for those who make it very hard for you. Whoever hits you on one side of the face, turn so he can hit the other side also. Whoever takes your coat, give him your shirt also. Give to any person who asks you for something. If a person takes something from you, do not ask for it back. Do for other people what you would like to have them do for you.6

Early church scholar Origen admits that it is the nature of evil to increase and grow by adding similar acts to its inventory. He says it’s like throwing fuel on the fire.7 Ambrosiaster agrees. He advises that it is always best for believers to refrain from even thinking about doing something in retaliation for any wrong done to them. However, there are some who are overcome because of jealousy, envy, anger, pride, etc., and giving in to retaliation is just too easy. We must all remember that our Savior overcame evil by letting it take its course. Evil often works against itself, and when it thinks it has accomplished its intended goal it declares victory. But often, persecution and harassment are meant to divert the believer from their stated purpose. Some critics are only looking for an opportunity to make believers do wrong. Therefore, if they try to provoke us into doing so, don’t retaliate by returning the favor. Rather, respond by doing something good. That way we are doing something good by ignoring any demand for justice through retribution.8

Then early church preacher Chrysostom takes it another step further. As he sees it, after we have let the offending person have their say, we step up to higher ground. Paul was convinced that no adversary was so inhumane that they would continue being an enemy once they were fed with kindness. To overcome evil with good is a true victory9.10 Also, Augustine points out that not all strife is started by external factors. If we are successful in helping our enemy to turn away from evil thoughts and deeds, they are thereby set free from any future guilt they might have accrued by continuing. But their freedom is not from some external force but from an inward inclination and tendency. In other words, it was a personal problem. It is the type of virus or disease that does more harm to a person’s emotions and self-respect than viruses and diseases do to the flesh.11 And Bishop Theodoret gives us this motto: “Revenge is mean-spirited. True victory is returning good for evil.12

Martin Luther believes that because of what Paul says here we should see to it that anyone who hurts us does not turn us into a person like themselves. That we should not let their disrespectful actions overcome our good manners. Luther feels it should be in reverse. Our kindness should be a force that helps them become a better person. In Proverbs we read: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you also be like him.13 Luther says that someone who tries to argue with a fool may permit themselves to be misled and end up developing the same foolish behavior. But he who overcomes evil with good, answers the fool in such a way that he no longer regards himself as wise, but recognizes his folly and detests and regrets it.14

John Calvin makes the point that once we realize that the person we are dealing with is doing all the evil they can imagine against us are altogether depraved and immoral if we try to retaliate it would require that we descend to levels of maliciousness that no believer should ever consider. Remember, this may be more than two children arguing over who hit who first. By staying on the path of holy living we win two victories. First, we do not degrade ourselves by acting like our enemy does. And secondly, we are giving God’s love, grace, and mercy an opportunity to really make a difference in the person who is trying to do us harm.15

Robert Haldane offers his advice on how to overcome evil with good. As he sees it, it’s not our anger that we should fear, it’s yielding to our own anger that will allow us to be conquered by the opposition. For some people, when they are offended or feel insulted, it is only proper to respond with resentment. But Paul is telling us that the opposite is true. When believers fight back it already spells defeat. Christians do not give into angry responses. To remain calm without rage under insult and ill-treatment is characteristic of Christ. When Jesus instructed His disciples to forgive their offending brethren, knowing how difficult that would be, they immediately prayed, “Lord, increase our faith.”16

Being willing to admit weakness in this area and praying for the help of the Holy Spirit in keeping our anger and resentment under control is one of the most courageous things any believer can do. When it comes to neutralizing evil with acts of kindness, Haldane says that this frequently happens. Also, that even though it may not achieve its initial goal, it will certainly have some positive effect. Nevertheless, we should make every attempt at following this principle. Haldane thinks that any effort we make to turn an enemy into a friend may still fail to change them but it will not fail to change us. As he sees it, our Christian character will be more perfected, our happiness will be increased, our ways will be pleasing to the Lord, and our reward will be sure. Those who cannot respond positively to kindness and goodness are probably beyond help anyway. However, when God gives up on them they will dread their punishment.17

Albert Barnes concludes that what Paul says here is one of the most noble and grand sentiments of the Christian religion. We cannot find this in the pagan classics, and nothing like it ever existed among heathen nations. Christianity alone has given birth to this lovely and mighty principle. It is designed to advance the welfare of mankind by promoting peace, harmony, and love. Barnes says that the idea of “overcoming evil with good” never occurred to people until the Gospel was preached. This is true to a certain degree. For instance, in the Buddist “Dhammapada” we find where it reads: “Overcome the angry by non-anger; overcome the wicked by goodness.”18 But when compared to all the other quotes on overcoming evil with good, it is always the good and evil in the individual, not between individuals.

Barnes also implies that on this principle God reveals genuine kindness. It is on this principle our Savior came, bled, and died. It is on this principle that all Christians interact with their enemies, and in so doing bring to the world’s attention to the knowledge of the Lord Jesus. By being known as kind, loving, and caring people, believers will shine the light of God’s love to the ends of the earth. This will show evil for what it really is. What purpose is there in trying to convert villages, towns, cities, or nations to Christianity if once they become believers this principle is not part of their faith? Christians should have the reputation of always returning good for evil.19

Always keep this in mind: when someone ridicules you for your faith in Christ, or calls you names or makes disparaging remarks concerning your relationship with God, do not respond by telling them how unfair or ridiculous they are being to make fun of your religion. Instead, shake their hand and say with great joy, “Thank you for giving me such a great honor. There is nothing more that I cherish than to suffer for the name of Christ and be cursed because of my faith in Him as my Lord and Savior!”

1 Matthew 18:22

2 Charles Spurgeon: Sermon – Overcome Evil With Good, No. 1317, Pt. II. Let us now consider The Divine Method of Overcoming Evil with Good., Delivered on Sunday, October 8, 1876, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, UK

3 True Spirituality: Becoming a Romans 12 Christian by Chip Ingram, p. 262

4 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 229

5 Proverbs 16:32 – Complete Jewish Bible

6 Luke 6:27-31

7 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

8 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

9 See 1 Peter 3:9

10 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 22

11 Augustine: Letter 138

12 Theodoret of Cyr: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

13 Proverbs 26:4

14 Martin Luther; On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 178

15 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

16 Luke 17:5

17 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 575

18 The Dhammapada: The Buddha’s Path of Wisdom, Trans. By Acharya Buddharakkhita, Buddha Dharma Education Association Inc., 1985, Ch. 17, No. 223, p. 58

19 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

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Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Martin Luther understands from what Paul says here that God is able to use us to convert those whom He wants converted by showing them goodness and mercy instead of anger and revenge. Sometimes, it’s not a sermon or a lecture that converts their heart and mind, but acts of kindness and love. Anyone who is converted by threat or out of fear is not truly converted. As long as they only go through the motions to be considered to be converted; instead of loving us they will hate us for manipulating them into being converted. But if anyone is converted through God’s love, then that person often burns with disappointment that they did not come to this realization sooner. But it is not necessary to put that person into some form of spiritual training camp where they are watched and demands are made of them to meet your expectations. Their love for God and His Word will teach them all the right things. That’s why Paul says that kindness shown to an enemy is like coals of fire on their head.1

John Calvin has a similar impression. Paul is trying to get us to see another way to fulfill the precepts he has proposed up until now. One is by not taking revenge or repaying evil for evil. In fact, we not only abstain from doing injury but do good to those who have done wrong to us. Otherwise, it can be seen as a kind of indirect form of getting even with them when we withhold our kindness from those who injured us. Paul calls them our enemy, not so that we look at them with hatred, but as someone who doesn’t understand us. And if we do something on a human level for them, such as help, assist, or give advice, their possible conversion becomes a greater possibility than if we insist on them receiving severe punishment.2 When we take what Calvin says here in light of today’s society where people are so easily insulted, it seems like something that is hard to do. But the principle will remain the same: Once you find out that someone is trying to undermine or sabotage your efforts in order to give themselves an advantage, let them know that you would be willing to work together with them so that both of you succeed. In that way, you transform a competitor into a co-associate.

Calvin then goes on to suggest that when we make the best out of every situation, then something good will most often follow. When we treat those who oppose us with calm kindness, it cannot but help impress them as much as having hot coals of conviction placed on their heads. When we think of it, those hot coals may cause them to bow their heads and ask God’s forgiveness so that the ashes of guilt are removed. Calvin admits that there are some who interpret these fiery coals being devastation which is placed on the head of our critics when we show them kindness that they don’t deserve, and deal with them in a manner other than what they deserve. By doing it this way, their guilt and dismay are doubled.

Others, however, prefer to take a different view. When our persecutors see themselves being treated so kindly instead of with anger, they are persuaded to love us in return. But we cannot expect the mind of our adversary to be turned one way or the other. Any kindness we show them may either softened their feelings of opposition, or it may harden into a savage which nothing you do can tame them. But don’t give up, they may end up being burned and tormented by the conviction of their own conscience when they become overwhelmed with kindness.3

John Bengel believes that what Paul says here holds true when faced by a bitter and violent opponent. The best way to end all vengeance is that an enemy finds repentance so that they are not delivered into the hands of an avenger. Bengel implies that a person may easily attain both objects if they treat their enemy with kindness. He finds both of these described in this remarkable phrase: “Sinners must not deny their sins. Those who say that they have not sinned against God and His majesty are only bringing fiery shame upon themselves.4 If your enemy ends up being the property of an avenger; you will then have them entirely in your power and ready to do as you ask.5

Both Bengel’s explanation and quote from Esdras make his point somewhat foggy. But to put it another way, the one who opposes you may be in danger of being brought before a judge for harassing and embarrassing you. Therefore, it may be in their best interest to get you to drop any charges against them by asking forgiveness. However, even your willingness to be kind and absolve them of any guilt may not keep the law from making them culpable of their unlawful actions. In that case, as they stand in court waiting to hear their sentence, knowing that you have already forgiven them will only make their punishment even harder to bear.

When it comes to coals of fire on people’s heads, Robert Haldane believes that we should be open to contrition on the part of our enemies for their own good, not so that they may forgo any punishment. It is worthless to force the words inspired by the Holy Spirit to mean something they were never intended to imply. Paul is clearly asserting that the conduct recommending the feeding and giving something to drink to an opponent will increase the pain of punishment if they don’t repent. And although we should never rejoice in this having the effect as causing them more misery, it should please us that through this they will come to appreciate Divine justice over human justice. What they experience should be a warning to their enemies to abandon their wicked conduct. This will help them escape the fearful consequences which they cannot avoid if they insist on carrying out their hostility. There can be no doubt that such conduct from the Lord’s people if it does not overcome their enemies, will eventually add to their guilt and punishment.6

Albert Barnes also has something to say about “coals of fire” as a metaphor. He sees these coals of fire as emblematic of “pain.” But under no circumstances should they be misunderstood as believers calling down divine vengeance on anyone. The Apostle Paul is speaking of the natural effect or result of showing kindness to a critic or persecutor. Burning coals heaped on a person‘s head would be a symbol of intense discomfort. So it seems that the Apostle is saying that the “effect” of showing kindness to an enemy would end up producing pain if they don’t repent. The pain involved would result from shame, remorse of conscience, conviction and embarrassment over their bad deeds. And with this could be added the fear of divine retribution. Hopefully, this may lead to repentance. Barnes finds this approach as not only permissible but as desirable. If a person can be brought to true repentance, it should be a daily practice.

Barnes also sees several teaching points that arise out of Paul’s instructions here. First, the best way to promote peace is by being kind and understanding even to our enemies. Secondly, a good way to bring anyone to repentance is by treating them with goodness. Using this principle allows God to be continually involved. People resist wrath, anger, and power, but they find it hard to resist goodness because it gets to their heart. Then when their conscience goes to work, they feel even greater remorse over their wrongful ways. Thirdly, if all believers did things God’s way according to the principles of the Gospel, there would be greater peace in the world. That’s because those with malice in their hearts would be overwhelmed with so many fiery coals of kindness being poured on their heads. Even human nature at its worse finds it hard to resist when Christians greet unkindness with kindness, all malice with goodness, and wrong with right. Under those circumstances, even opposition to the Gospel might soon fade away.7

Charles Hodge has much to say about this part of Paul’s narrative, especially heaping coals of fire on our enemy’s head. He notes that there are three leading interpretations of this interesting clause. The first, and perhaps the oldest, is that Paul means to say that our enemies will be punished much more severely if we leave it up to God than if we try to do it ourselves. Hodge finds this a revolting interpretation and out of character with Paul’s intentions. We should never think of any opponent of the Gospel being treated this way as if we are wishing to draw down the full force of divine wrath on them. It actually means that such may be the consequence if they feel no remorse or grief for what they’ve done to God’s children. Hodge feels we must connect this clause with what precedes it. By doing all we can do to show kindness and compassion, this will put more pressure on them to reconsider their opposition to the cause of Christ.

There is a second interpretation that Hodge brings up and that is: by heaping coals of fire on their head it will embarrass them and cause them grief, namely, the pain of remorse and shame. Then the third interpretation is that by being kind and compassionate we are using the most effective method of quieting them down. When hot coals are dumped on anyone, it is a punishment which no one can bear. Thus they must yield to it. Kindness is no less effectual; the most determined enemy cannot always withstand it. This is the true and Christian method of subduing an enemy by overcoming evil with good. This interpretation, fits the whole context so well that it doesn’t seem necessary to add the hot coals. However, the sentiment expressed by this interpretation is also more in harmony with the spirit of the Gospel.8

Charles Spurgeon preached on this subject and asked that the audience notice that this text instills not only a passive non-resistance on the part of the believer, but it also teaches that active acts of kindness can help to overcome opposition. That is if any person has done you wrong, not only should we be willing to forgive them, but add to it by doing them a favor. Spurgeon cites Dr. Cotton Mather, a New England Puritan minister, as never being content until he had bestowed a benefit on every person who had in any way done him wrong. If anybody has slandered you or treated you with disrespect, go out of your way to offer them help. Someone might say, “Well, I feel sorry for them, but really they are such a nuisance I could never bring myself to help them out.” Yet, according to this Scripture, they are the very type of person you are encouraged to feed. If they thirst, don’t say, “Let somebody else help them, I wish them no ill will but I’m not going to go out of my way to give them anything to drink.”

As Spurgeon sees it, this is just the kind of person our Lord commanded us to satisfy their hunger and quench their thirst. Hurry up to the well with your pitcher and quickly give them water to drink. Do it at once, don’t hesitate. We are not only asked to forgive but to let go. Spurgeon encouraged everyone to impress upon the malicious mind of their enemy the blessed sin-killing wound of their cordial and practical goodwill. In other words, offer them a blessing instead of a curse, a hug instead of a punch, a favor instead of disrespect. “Oh,” someone might exclaim, “that’s asking too much! I can’t bring myself to do that.” Don’t count God out as your Helper in doing things the right way. “It’s too difficult,” you might complain. But God does not accept such a lame excuse. His Spirit says try it, if it fails then you have your excuse. Remember, the word “impossible,” does not exist in God’s vocabulary.

1 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 178

2 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit, loc. cit.

3 Calvin: ibid.

4 2 Esdras 16:53 – Good News Translation w/Apocrypha

5 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 345

6 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 574

7 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

8 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 623-624

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Dr. Robert R. Seyda



In one of Charles Spurgeon’s sermons on this chapter, he reiterates that there is no reason to consider any method that proposes overcoming evil with evil. In fact, it should not be made a subject of discussion or consideration. If any regenerated person has fallen for these suggestions on how to solve their problem with being offended, let them sit down for a minute and ask how could a Christian entertain such a thought. Do they not know they have usurped the place of God, for vengeance belongs only to the Judge of all the earth. How does it feel to know that you are trying to replace Almighty in His role as Judge? Ask yourself, who am I that I should scramble up to God’s throne and seize His sword and attempt to make myself judge and executioner among mankind! Don’t you know you may be judged guilty of committing high treason against the King of Glory?

Then Spurgeon wants to know how that person feels kneeling before God after having done such a thing? Can they really pray what our Lord taught us: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us?” Would not their eyes fill with tears and their heart become heavy with regret? And what good would all their tough talk and fierce threats do for them while lying on their death bed? Would all their ranting and raving and multiple law-suits become precious memories in their dying hours? How could anybody believe that such resentment and hatred could become the subject of our praise and worship to God? Could they at that moment think of how they would thank the God of love and mercy for His help in taking revenge on someone just to satisfy their own selfishness? Therefore, if we cannot pray about it, or praise God about it, then let it go. Is there anything we could whisper in Christ’s ear about avenging our hurt feelings that would make Him smile in approval? Is there anything in what we did to get back at someone for something they did or say that made us upset that will bring us nearer in fellowship with Christ? Was there anything in the anger we expressed or hurtful venom we spewed from our mouths could be counted as laying up treasures for ourselves in heaven?1

F. F. Bruce reminds us that the present form of the text in verse 19 is also found in Hebrews 10:30. It appears in the Aramaic Targums with various readings that give us a flavor of what the Jewish scholars thought of what God was saying here. Verse 35 in one of them reads: “Their punishment is before Me, and I will repay.2 And another one says, “Vengeance lies before Me, and I will pay them back when I move their foot from freedom to captivity.”3 And in Verse 36; we have: “For the Lord shall decide the judgment of His people,4 and in another, “For the Word of the Lord holds in His mercy the judgment of His people.5 The point here is that since retribution and penalty are God’s prerogative, their exercise should be left up to Him.

We find a similar prohibition against vengeance in the Dead Sea Scrolls where it reads: “And concerning the saying, You shall not take vengeance on the children of your people, nor bear any resentment against them,6 if any member of the Covenant accuses his companion without first rebuking him before 12 witnesses; if he denounces him in the heat of his anger or reports him to his elders to make him look contemptible, he is the one who is taking vengeance and carrying out resentment, although it is expressly written, ‘Adonai takes vengeance on His foes and stores up wrath for His enemies.’78 So the message seems clear enough: God has always been in charge when it comes to vengeance, let Him stay in charge.

Verse 20: But this is what you should do: If you have enemies who are hungry, give them something to eat. If you have enemies who are thirsty, give them something to drink. This will be like putting red-hot coals of shame on their head.

Now comes the proactive recommendations from the Apostle Paul on how to live in harmony, even among those who may be against you and your mission. Don’t wait for them to make peace, show them you mean no harm and that having you as a friend is the best choice they could make. This was already part of Jewish ethics as Moses outlined the following: “If you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey straying, you must return it to him. If you see the donkey lying down helpless under its load, and you know it belongs to someone who hates you, you are not to pass him by but to go and help him free it.9 And David was an example of this virtue when he had a chance to kill King Saul who was hunting for him but decided to spare his life because he considered Saul God’s anointed leader. As a result, Saul had this to say to David: “Would a man who came upon the person who hated him he let him go away safe? May the Lord bring good to you for what you have done for me this day. Now I am certain that you will become king.”10

But Paul is not going to leave it up to chance that the Jewish leaders in the Roman church will remember these things, so he quotes from the wise King Solomon: “If someone who hates you is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink.11 Then Paul quotes what Solomon said would be the benefit of practicing such an altruistic act. “For you will heap fiery coals [of shame] on his head, and Adonai will reward you.12 Could it be that Solomon was quoting his father David who wrote: “May the heads of those who surround me be engulfed in the evil they spoke of, themselves. May burning coals rain down on them.13 So how were the burning coals to come raining down on their heads? Again David gives us a hint: “What has he in store for you, deceitful tongue? What more will he do to you? A warrior’s sharp arrows, with red-hot coals from a broom tree.14 In other words, when someone intends to deceive you and you are aware of their plan, don’t rebuke them outright in an effort to embarrass them. Rather, show them the same kindness you would to a person who is handicapped or disadvantaged. This in and of itself will be a form of punishment that is intended to bring about contrition that may result in the making of a friend.

One Jewish Rabbi commented on this subject of seeing one’s opponents in hunger. For him, it had the obvious meaning of being hungry for food. But other Rabbis spiritualized it into meaning that the hunger referred to the opponent’s sinful tendencies. Therefore, by saying they were hungry they were asking that they be satisfied by feeding their sinful passions. When this happens, take them into the synagogue and feed them the bread of Torah, and likewise, give him the water of Torah to drink.15 When we put this in the Christian perspective, if we see sinners who are dissatisfied with their worldly living and seem hungry for something more satisfying, invite them inside to feast on the Word of God and let Jesus give them a drink of His living water.

Even heathen philosophers believe punishing and taking revenge are vastly different activities. Consider the ancient view put forth by Plato’s Protagoras when speaking to Socrates tells him that when one thinks about the nature of punishment, they will see at once that common sense tells them that through discipline virtuous behavior can be taught. After all, no one punishes a person for making a mistake with the notion that it’s because they did wrong. The person who desires to impose rational punishment does not retaliate for past wrongs which cannot be undone. Instead, they look to the future with the desire that the one being punished, and those who see them being punished, will be deterred from doing wrong again.16

Early church scholar Augustine has an interesting commentary on this subject. For him what Paul says here may seem to many people to contradict what the Lord taught, that is, that we should love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.17 If that were true, even the Apostle’s own statements [in verses 14 and 17] would be contradicted. How can anyone claim to feed and nourish someone out of love when they do so just to heap coals of fire on their heads when they finish eating? We must then assume that “coals of fire” means some form of caring discipline. Therefore, we could understand that this as meaning that we should motivate whoever does us harm to repentance by doing them a good turn for their evil act. For the coals of fire serve to bring anguish and grief to their spirit for causing us so much trouble. These coals of fire are mentioned in the Psalms: “What should be given to you or what appointed to you, for your deceitful tongue? Sharp arrows of the warrior with devouring burning coals.1819

Then Pelagius makes the point that we should not deny our enemy what God denies no one, even if they are a godless blasphemer. When they realize that through your undeserved mercy you have heaped fiery coals of conviction upon their head, they may shake them off in repentance. This may result in them loving you instead of continuing to hate you. To do otherwise is not mercy but cruelty. After all, if you show mercy instead of something bad that may have befallen them, it will be seen as you interceding for them before the Lord20.21

And to this we join the thoughts of Luculentius who noted that some people give their enemies food and drink in order to inflict coals of fiery shame and embarrassment on them. But anyone who does this does not love their enemy as they would themselves. We are not supposed to give our enemy food and drink to punish them, but rather to convert them into being our friend. For just like they detested us before, they will now begin to love us with the same fervor. The person who loves their enemy in this way will truly heap coals of fire on their head, that is, the hot coals of love which comes from kindness. The coals themselves are dead, but they can be set aflame by the fire of love and kindness.22

1 Charles Spurgeon: Text: Romans 12:21, Overcome Evil with Good, Ser. No. 1317, Delivered on Sunday, October 8, 1876 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, England

2 Targums Onkelos, loc. cit.

3 Jonathan Ben Uzziel/Palestinian, loc. cit.

4 Targums Onkelos, loc. cit.

5 Jonathan Ben Uzziel/Palestinian, loc. cit.

6 Leviticus 19:18

7 Nahum 1:2

8 The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English (7th Edition) (Penguin Classics), The Damascus Document, The Statutes, 4Q 266 fr. 8i 6-9, (pp. 139-140). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

9 Exodus 23:4-5

10 1 Samuel 24:19-20a

11 Proverbs 25:21

12 Proverbs 25:22

13 Psalm 140:9-10

14 Psalm 120:3-4

15 Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi Commentary: Proverbs 25:21

16 Plato, Protagoras, 324a–b, written 380 BC

17 Matthew 5:44

18 Psalm 120:3-4

19 Augustine: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

20 See Matthew 5:44

21 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

22 Luculentius: Commentary 5

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Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Also, early church writer Ambrosiaster had something to say about leaving vengeance up to God. He begins by pointing out that Paul warns us to avoid anger because so often anger is the chief cause of doing things we later regret. We know that anyone who is motivated by fury will often demand more in return than the injury or abuse they received deserves. In doing so, they make themselves liable to do more harm than necessary while seeking revenge. They may end up destroying someone they could have been instrumental in correcting and restoring instead. This is why Paul cautions us not to seek revenge from those under us but also those who are our equals or superiors. Especially, do not seek to avenge ourselves against a brother or sister in Christ who may have wronged us in some way rather than waiting on the Lord to act. This will keep them from trying to find a way to get back at us for our vengeful attitude. Even worse, we may not even notice, because we are so angry, what has really taken place. Paul quotes God’s words when He: “I will make My shining sword sharp. My hand takes hold of what is right and fair. I will punish those who are against Me. And I will punish those who hate Me,1 to back up his point. What Paul is saying is that we must pay attention to what God teaches. If we turn revenge over to God it benefits us in two ways: it overcomes our own anger and builds on our justification with sanctification.2

John Calvin is certainly against Christians taking revenge. The main reason is that it can go from seeking an apology to seeking retaliation. When that happens, it turns the believer into a prosecutor, judge, and jury. That is close to a person wanting to be God. How can any believer try and usurp the authority of God? Avenging the wrongs done to His children is part of God’s judgment plan. God has reserved this office for Himself. Paul is clearly saying that God is their defender. So why not patiently wait for Him to act. Believers must be willing to wait for God to do something in their place instead of trying to do something in God’s place.

Calvin goes on to point out that Paul not only cautions us not to execute revenge with our own hands but keep our hearts from becoming fixed on any desire of this kind. As Calvin sees it, it is pointless to make a distinction between public and private revenge. What difference is there between someone with malicious intent on getting revenge by taking someone to court and the person who comes up with their own plan of self-revenge? There is no difference! Seeking retribution is something we must turn over to God whether it is public or private. When believers go off on a mission to get revenge no matter what, they then turn God into being their Judge as much as the Judge of those who did them wrong. However, the wrong that God must judge in the heart of the believer is that they have a depraved passion to do harm to others, instead of seeking to get them out of a terrible situation. So Paul is saying that we should forget going after others to get even with them. Stay calm, look to the future when God will repay them His way. Why turn someone who might become our friend into a permanent adversary?3

John Bengel offers his view that by making this appeal for keeping a cool mind in a hot situation, Paul is attempting to calm down those in the church in Rome who might be angry at the way they were being treated either in the congregation or in the city. When Paul does this, he often uses exhortations that flow from a sense of the Divine grace which had been shown toward him as the encourager and those in Rome he is encouraging.4 His point is that anyone who attempts to avenge themselves is trying to seize without warrant all that pertains to the God as Judge. In doing so they ignore what is said in Scripture; that is: the wrath of God, which is the only one that’s fair, is also the only one that deserves to be called “wrath.”5 Some Christians do this because they believe they are worthy of religious reverence.

As Bengel sees it, then Paul takes the next step of inferring that personal acts of retaliation may elevate themselves to prosecution through a law-suit to make up for what they were unable to achieve on their own. The Apostle pleads with the believers in Rome, and everywhere, to suppress all desire for vengeance. Just think of this: Suppose that the person who offended you is not as bad as you think, and they end up thinking that you are worse than you think. They may end up obtaining God’s grace upon repentance, but you will not because you were not satisfied with the outcome. Furthermore, your grudge against them may be seen in God’s eyes as a barrier against their having access to Him. In fact, they would have been delighted in your forgiveness and remembering them in your prayers. But even if all this fails and they do not turn to God in repentance, it still does not absolve you from your fault and you will need to seek a pardon for what you did. At least, when it is left up to God, His advantage as supreme Judge will allow Him to punish those at fault if they do not take advantage of His grace and ask for a pardon.6

On the subject of believers staying away from becoming vengeful, Robert Haldane reminds us that when it comes to our fleshly desires and passions, the urge to take revenge on those who injure us is one of the strongest and hardest to control. The Apostle Paul, therefore, introduces this dissuasive appeal against practicing this corrupt principle. Christians will have more than one occasion to test out this precept by Paul. That’s because such occurrences not only involve believers against unbelievers but believers against believers. This seems to be Paul’s main aim but is open to it being heeded when arguments arise with those in the world. No doubt Paul takes it for granted that those who abstain from avenging their own cause will not essentially promote their happiness.

It is a painful thing to think that we will not receive compensation for our injuries and abuses. However, Paul believes that by forgetting them and turning them over to God it will give us more peace and happiness than if we did get our way of punishing them. How different this is from the principles of this world. So many in the unregenerate society go by what they call the laws of honor. In many cases, in obedience to such a law, a person is willing to make a cold-blooded vow that they are ready to risk their own life to make sure that such revenge is carried out to either settle an insulting, heartbreaking confrontation or the most trivial injury. So the question now becomes, how much gross ignorance does any believer manifest when they even consider acting in this manner. Not only that but to suggest that they drop their effort to get revenge and turn it over to God would be misunderstood by them as an insult to their intelligence.

Then Haldane goes on to point out that all believers must come to the realization that God will avenge the injuries done to His people. So you may ask, what, then, will be the punishment of those who misuse their time to persecute, injure, reproach, and slander the disciples of Christ? That is God’s decision, and His right to pick the time and place. However, Haldane does not believe, as some have suggested, that this prohibits Christians from appealing to the courts in case of injuries. Not to get back at the perpetrator, but simply recover any financial or property losses. I think we all agree that this is true, especially of auto insurance, worker’s compensation, and home insurance against flooding, break-ins, and robbery.

Haldane agrees with Calvin that while we must be careful when going to court to recover losses, never should it be done based on the principle of seeking revenge. Both Haldane and Calvin look at filing a lawsuit based on a principle of revenge is the same as taking up revenge with one’s own hands. To go to court simply to get revenge is simply using a judge and jury to do the work of revenge for us. This must be considered as a misuse of justice to satisfy a personal, selfish passion. Yes, there are many cases where it would be highly irresponsible not to punish evil-doers, such as in the case of murder, embezzlement, or needless killing of innocents by drunken drivers. No judge will think it wrong to appeal to the court under such circumstances. However, as believers, we must never use even these atrocious and heinous acts as an excuse to execute vengeance.7

Girolamo Savonarola, an Italian Dominican friar, and preacher during the Renaissance period once said, “A Christian’s life consists in doing good and forgiving evil.8 This is certainly an ideology that goes beyond what Paul is preaching. Even Christians must let justice take care of those who break the law. H. A. Ironside puts it in perspective by saying that we should never take matters into our own hands. We should see what Paul is saying here in verse 19 in light of what he will say in verses 20-21. It is a matter of simple confidence that God will not allow any trial to come upon the believer through the acts of others but what He will not eventually work it out for the believer’s good9.10

Charles Hodge breaks down one important phrase in this verse when he talks about three interpretations of what the KJV that renders as, “give place unto wrath.” The NIV has, “leave room for God’s wrath.” The Complete Jewish Bible renders it: “leave that to God’s anger.” Hodge says that first, we must look at this anger or wrath as coming from the injured person. We should then take what Paul says as meaning, “allow it to pass,” namely, let it go, don’t hold on to it or pander to it. Such an interpretation would be in direct contradiction to the common and proper meaning of the phrase in question, which signifies that we should let it run its course. Hodge points out that in Latin, the phrase is frequently used in the sense of deferring the gratification of anger, giving it space or time to cool.

The second interpretation refers to the wrath that the person causing the injury should suffer. This interpretation would imply that we should not avenge ourselves, but rather yield or submit to the anger of our enemy. This is consistent with the literal meaning of the phrase that tells us to get out of the way so that it does us little harm. Hodge points to German scholar Johann Christian Schöttgen, who in his NT commentary says that Jewish writers use the corresponding Hebrew phrase in the sense of “avoiding.” However, there is no example in the Bible for such understanding. When it comes to being the object of wrath we are never told to just allow anyone the free exercise of such vengeance on any person or thing.11

That brings us to the third interpretation. This points toward the wrath of God, and out of the three, is the only one consistent with the meaning of the phrase as used in this context. In other words: Dearly beloved, don’t attempt to avenge any wrong done to you on your own. Leave that matter up to God. Get out of His way. Let God take care of it based on what He knows and what He can do. After all, it’s up to Him to see to it that those who deserve it are properly punished. Then the quote by Paul from Deuteronomy 32:35, is obviously cited to show the propriety of the command to leave vengeance to God, and not attempt to take it into our own hands. Hodge doesn’t believe that we should desire that divine vengeance overtake our enemies because of the joy we would get out of watching it happen. Rather, we should do nothing that would usurp the prerogative of God as the true avenger.12

1 Deuteronomy 32:41

2 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

3 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

4 Cf. Romans 12:1

5 See 2 Chronicles 24:18

6 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 344-345

7 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 572-573

8 Agnes of Sorrento, by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Ch. 21

9 Romans 8:28

10 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

11 See Ephesians 4:27

12 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 622-623

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Gautama Buddha, the prince, warrior, mediator and enlighten teacher of who was born in what is now Nepal and died in India, said in one of his teachings that “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” There is no one alive who cannot relate to this saying. We all know about anger and often try to deal with it every day. But where does anger come from? There are several theories, let’s look at some of them.

While it is not the same in everyone’s case, feelings of being depressed often go hand-in-hand with feelings of anger. Some psychologists say that if there’s a circumstance in our life that’s causing us to be angry, but we feel powerless to change it, that means we’re carrying around that anger every day with seemingly no way to release it. It’s easy to see how this could lead to depression. So dealing with the anger may help to resolve the feelings of depression. And since anger is the strong emotion we feel when we think that we have been treated unfairly, or disrespectfully, or abusively, that would be a good place to start.

But we also know that anger can be triggered by little things. Psychologists tell us that if little annoyances upset us more than we think they should, it’s probably because our irritation isn’t about those small annoyances — it’s about something larger that we haven’t been able to deal with yet. And when we’re holding on to those unresolved feelings, small infractions will often play into our already existing circumstances and reinforce our anger. So don’t get mad at the little things that set you off, find out what you haven’t yet come to grips with that is much larger. For instance, a boss came in and found out that his secretary had not completed all the correspondence needed to be signed. He immediately began to yell at her and called her names he had never used before. Come to find out, before he left the house that morning his wife had asked him for a divorce. So that was the cause for his anger, not the unfinished correspondence.

Psychologists also point to times when we feel stuck in an uncomfortable situation. Whether it’s a personal or a professional relationship, if we feel like we’re in a constant state of limbo with the other person, it might be because we’re holding on to anger. we’re not telling them we’re angry, so there’s no arguing on one hand — but on the other, there’s no progress, either. This can cause us to feel like we’re stuck in a holding pattern. This can also happen with unfinished business or projects. For instance, if the wife wants the TV mounted on the wall so it will give her more room to move her furniture around, but the husband wants to keep it on the stand so he can get to it easier if something goes wrong, as long as that contention is not settled, anger is very likely to show itself over even the smallest unrelated disagreement.

But clinical studies also tell us that sometimes we deal with anger through isolation. As long as the situation or disagreement is not resolved it can cause us to cut ourselves off from the person or people we feel angry at. This can be a problem, particularly if those people are our loved ones. If we find ourselves avoiding or drifting away from specific people, we should ask ourselves why. It may be that it feels easier to avoid them than to maintain a relationship, in which case we will likely have to address our anger. But over the long term, being honest about our feelings will be much more constructive. It is a very soothing and healing feeling that happens when we tell someone we love that we were angry with them, but it wasn’t their fault, it was ours. Asking for and receiving forgiveness will come very quickly.

But there is also another factor that must be addressed when we can’t seem to resolve what’s making us angry. We keep telling ourselves the same story, in which we are right and they are wrong. Psychologists tell us that it’s a good thing to try to make sense of what we’re experiencing — and many of us do this through stories. But if we find ourselves telling the same stories about how our partner or friend’s did us wrong over a lengthy period of time, it’s probably a sign that we’re holding on to anger that hasn’t been dealt with yet. We all need to vent, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. But if we’re venting about the same things time and again, that’s likely something we want to look into a little more deeply. The more we keep those closest to us at arm’s length, the colder the relationship will become.

So, if these signs sound familiar to us, what can we do to let go of our anger so that we can move on? Here are a few helpful steps:

We should stop going on guilt trips all by ourselves. We live in a culture that demonizes anger. As a result, many of us feel like there’s something wrong with us if we’re holding on to anger. We feel like we should be “nicer” people, and feeling this way means we have a bad temper. As a result, we hide our anger, even from ourselves. But the truth is, there’s nothing wrong with being angry. Give yourself permission to truly feel your emotions. It’s dealing with our anger and its cause that takes time, but it is worth it.

As one counselor said, for many of us, the source of our anger can be the feeling that we’ve been victimized or wronged in some way. And this can be completely true. It might genuinely be the case that the other person acted wrongly and that they hurt us for no reason. But continuing to let that person have power over us will only keep us stuck. We didn’t have control over what they did, but we do have control over how we react. If it’s a toxic relationship or workplace where we’re continuing to be victimized, it’s better to leave than to stay and remain angry. Or if there are steps we want to take to address our feelings and repair the relationship, we should know that it’s in our power to do so.

Another counselor stated that it is alright to express our anger. Often, we bottle up our anger out of a desire to keep the peace. But this never works out well, as it often leads to resentment. We should allow ourselves to express what we feel. This doesn’t mean shouting and accusing. There is a respectful way to have a conversation in which we let the other person know we feel angry. And it’s important to do so, otherwise, the relationship will continue to operate based on false pretenses.

One of the simplest and yet most powerful ways of dealing with anger is learning to forgive. There is a time when this is appropriate, and that time might not be right now. We must allow ourselves to truly feel and express our anger first. If we try to jump right to forgiveness and skip the process of really recognizing what we’re feeling, then “forgiveness” becomes just another way to sweep our feelings under the rug. However, once enough time has passed and we’ve allowed ourselves to process our feelings, forgiveness will be very powerful. Forgiveness doesn’t mean letting the other person off the hook if they wronged you. It doesn’t mean you’re saying everything that happened is okay. It means you acknowledge what happened, you’re just not going to demand restitution before you let go. You’re not going to let it keep you stuck. It really is the most powerful way to let go of anger.

The Bible is not silent when it comes to dealing with anger. David said in one of his Psalms that it’s alright to get upset and aggravated, but don’t let it make you do something wrong. Stop, go lay down, meditate on what has happened, examine your heart and it will calm you down.1 In another place he said that we should turn our feelings over to the Lord in prayer. Don’t get upset if the one who wronged us is doing fine while we’re still aggravated. This will help us stop our anger from causing us to do more harm than good. When that happens, then the possibility of ever resolving our differences will be remote at best.2

Apparently, David’s son Solomon learned quite a bit about anger. He once said that a person who is short-tempered can end up acting like a fool. That’s because they hate the person who is patient. Then he says that a person is long-tempered knows how to control themselves because losing their temper can lead to making a great mistake.3 Long-tempered individuals have learned that giving a soft answer can calm the other person down as well. If we yell back each time we’re yelled at it only makes the situation worse. Furthermore, when we let our temper get the best of us, it can cause a fight, but if we keep it under control, we can keep a fight from happening.4

Solomon goes on to say that it is better to be known as a person who does not easily get upset than it is to be famous.5 It’s not that things don’t bother us, but that by withholding our anger, it gives us time to look at what happened. In the end, we get greater admiration for having forgiven than that we took revenge.6 In fact, Solomon said that a person without any self-control is like a city whose walls are broken down.7 Today we might say that it is like a dictator of a small country with a rag-tag army taking on the United States Military. Solomon would say that such a person was a fool to lose their temper. They should have been quiet and let their anger cool down.8

The Apostle Paul was also keen on believers controlling their anger. He wrote the church in Ephesus and told them to go ahead and be angry. You do well to be angry—but don’t use your anger as fuel for revenge. And don’t stay angry. Don’t go to bed angry. Don’t give the Devil that kind of foothold in your life.9 And the Apostle James joins him by writing to his constituents that should never forget that it is best to listen much, speak little, and not become angry; anger doesn’t make us good, as God demands that we must be.10

Keep this in mind: anger, like love, joy, peace, is an abstract emotion. You can’t pour it into a glass like you do orange juice or grape juice. But the consequences of anger are very concrete and real. A broken chair, a busted mirror, or a black-eye, swollen lip, or multiple bruises can prove that. But it’s the wounds on the inside that are not seen, and they often hurt the most and take the longest to heal. So remember what Buddha said about wanting to throw a hot coal at someone in anger, you will be the one who will end up with the most burns. – Dr. Robert R Seyda

1 Psalm 4:4

2 Ibid. 37:7-9

3 Proverbs 14:17, 29

4 Ibid. 15:1, 18

5 Ibid. 16;32

6 Ibid. 19:11

7 Ibid. 25:28

8 Ibid. 29:11

9 Ephesians 4:26-27

10 James 1:19-20

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This real-life story was told by Linda Perkins a few months ago. It makes a very valid point that we must always look up not down when we find ourselves in less than happy circumstances. I hope it blesses you as it did me.

She had just dropped her daughter off at school and was turning out of the parking lot when she spotted something out of the corner of her eye. There, in the drainage ditch on the side of the road, was a white egret, standing tall on his long stick-like legs in about six inches of water.

Living on the Gulf Coast, it isn’t unusual to see water birds. They don’t normally hang out on city streets, though.

She pondered why the bird was there. Was it lost? Injured? She didn’t know the circumstances of how it got there, but there it was…in a ditch.

She thought about how sometimes we are like that bird, in circumstances we would not have chosen…when times are tough and life feels hard. Yet, while we may feel alone when we are down and out, that bird served as a reminder that we are not. God is with us.

Her neighborhood egret may have been lost, but something led him to find what he needed…water. He didn’t find it in a lake or a bayou. He found it in a ditch.

Oftentimes, we spend our time trying to climb out of life’s ditches. Meanwhile, God reminds us that we don’t need to go anywhere. He is there in ALL our circumstances, not just the good ones. He is ready to provide what we need, wherever we are…yes, even in the ditch. – Linda Perkins, April 2019 Postcards

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Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Frédéric Godet notes that Paul continues talking about how we should always confront evil with good. In Godet’s mind, the Apostle is identifying a person’s preoccupation with good as being a remedy for the retaliatory thoughts and hostile intentions people began to conjure up when dealing with resentment. Paul wants the believer’s internal preoccupation with doing good to be so apparent in their conduct, even toward their adversaries or enemies, that no one would suspect them of possessing a mind that is inspired by a hostile disposition. This spirit of goodwill is necessarily one of a peacemaker. It does not meditate on things that can cause trouble but strives to remove what disunites. Paul’s first restriction deals with our neighbor’s conduct. We are not to try and master their feelings. We have enough to do with keeping our own in check. That leads to the second restriction. As much as lies within our own power, to exercise discipline over ourselves. Paul is not advocating that we are responsible for convincing our neighbor that they should make peace with us. Rather, God is depending on us to always be inclined to keeping a peaceful relationship with them.1

John Stott also meditates on this subject of good for evil. For him, Paul’s first antithesis between good and evil was, “bless and do not curse” (verse 14). His second begins with: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil” (verse 18). I like how J. B. Phillips renders this, “we are to see that our public behavior is above criticism.”2 This then would make our actions and attitude abnormal if we claim to be refraining from doing anything bad while at the same time not seen as trying to do anything good. Paul’s next counterpart to this first precept is to dismiss any notion of retaliation. As much as possible, and as far as it depends on us, we should have a peaceful relationship with everyone. When we refrain from repaying evil with evil, it defuses any potential of inflaming a disagreement into a quarrel. But there is more. As believers, we must do all we can to initiate peacemaking,3 even if, as the two qualifications indicate (“if it is possible” and “as far as it depends on us”), this is not always possible. We’ve learned that sometimes people are either unwilling to live at peace with us, or refuse to accept any conditions for reconciliation. When this happens, never be tempted to agree to any unacceptable moral compromise just to make peace.4

Douglas Moo also has some thoughts on this subject. For him, at the end of the Apostle’s brief outline of the subject of sincere love, Paul returns to a key ingredient of that love he mentioned in verse 14, namely, responding to the persecution of unbelievers with kindness rather than with hatred. Paul wants to show the positive and negative aspects of dealing with unkindness and slander. First, he introduces the negative facet: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil.” With the teaching of Jesus in mind, Paul echoes what our Lord said encouraging us to bless those who persecute us, and discouraging us from demanding an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.5 Jesus thereby introduces us to the kingdom of God’s ethic of non-retaliation, something Paul renews here.

But here the followers of Jesus are exhorted to do more than just avoid retaliation. Paul says in verse 17 they must also do what everyone would agree was the right thing to do. However, who is to determine for a Christian what is “the right thing to do?” That’s why verse 18 qualifies the extent to which believers are to conform their behavior to meet the expectations of unbelievers. “Do the best you can” means, in effect, only that which God’s good and perfect will allow you to do. But under no circumstances should believers feel compelled to seek approval with the world at the expense of God’s moral demands. We all must realize that a harmonious relationship with unbelievers will not always be the outcome of our best efforts. After all, look how hard our Lord tried to establish a good relationship with the scribes and Pharisees, but in the end, they too joined in crying out, “Crucify Him.”6

Jewish scholar David Stern makes no secret of the fact that this teaching by Paul may have been influenced by the teaching he received under Jewish Rabbis.7 For instance, in their own Mishnah, we read these words: “It is one’s duty to be free of blame before man as before G-d. As it states: ‘And you will be cleared [of any charges] before ADONAI and before Israel.’8 And it further states: “Then you will win favor and esteem in the sight of God and of people.910 Another Jewish writer believes that Paul is speaking here about being arrogant. This means: having an attitude of superiority which is expressed in an overbearing manner based on presumptions. Paul might have been offering this advice while dealing with a specific situation in the Roman congregation, but it qualifies as a general application for all believers. In this Jewish writer’s mind, arrogance is equated (spiritually) with poor judgment, while humility is attributed to sound judgment based on seeking God’s will as found in the Torah. It is there that we find what God’s says are our “rights” or “freedoms” as believers11.12

Verse 19: My friends, don’t become the avenger when someone does something wrong to you. Wait for God to punish them with His displeasure. In the Scriptures, the Lord says, “I am the one who punishes; I will pay people back.”13

Here the Apostle Paul begins with one reference and one quote from First Covenant writers. First, he repeats what Solomon said about waiting for the Lord to do the punishing.14 Then, second, he quotes what Moses had to say to the children of Israel about how to placate their enemies and making peace. In another place, Moses adds this: “Don’t take vengeance on or bear a grudge against any of your people; rather, love your neighbor as yourself; I am ADONAI.15 King Solomon also emphasized the same ethic: “Don’t say, “I’ll do to him what he did to me, I’ll pay him back what his deeds deserve.16

Paul wrote this letter to the Roman believers during a time when Jews were hated in many places where they had relocated, and Christians were looked upon as a radical sect of Judaism and not well thought of. Therefore, getting along with each other was of extreme importance. This then would help them support each other when they were assaulted and persecuted by the heathen world around them. It was another way of God saying: Stick together and let me take care of those who are trying to make your lives miserable.

There was a good reason for Paul to make this recommendation. After all, what God did once for His people He would do again since He never changes. He told the children of Israel what would happen to those who turned their backs on Him: “Vengeance and payback are mine for the time when their foot slips; for the day of their calamity is coming soon, their doom is rushing upon them.”17 Even the Psalmist called out for God to do His job: “Yahweh God of vengeance, ADONAI! Yahweh God of vengeance, appear! Assert Yourself as judge of the earth! Payback the proud what they deserve!18 Of course, once such a prayer is prayed, then the outcome must be surrendered into the hands of God so that His will and only His will may be done. The prophet Nahum received this word in his vision about Nineveh: “ADONAI is a jealous and vengeful God. ADONAI avenges; He knows how to be upset. ADONAI takes vengeance on His foes and stores up punishment for His enemies.19 Some 700 years later the writer of Hebrews echoes the same warning as it was written in the Torah.20

Early church scholar Origen sees what Paul says about vengeance belonging to God as two ways of dealing with the anger which comes when we are offended. First, we hold back our anger and let it pass. Once the fury of our rage has subsided it will be gone because we learned how to swallow it. The second way is to surrender it to God who puts it in His storehouse of punishment waiting for the Day of Judgment. On that day, God will dispense to each person what they deserve for their words and deeds. When we take it upon ourselves to get revenge, there is not much we can do apart from demanding an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth,21 or else insulting others as they have insulted us. But if we postpone any such avenging to what God has planned for them, He will, without doubt, punish them far more severely than we ever could.”22

The Bishop of Tarsus, Paul’s hometown, shares that Paul uses the Greek noun orgē, meaning wrath,” to describe God’s punishment. Thayer in his Lexicon puts this in the category of how God treats disobedience and resistance to His will by punishing them for it. In other words, it is not all out wrath upon them, but specific to their act of being stubborn and resistant to God’s will.23 If there was no discipline, how would sinners understand right from wrong in God’s Law and God’s judgment on those who are disobedient to His Law? This has nothing to do with some kind of passion on God’s part to be mean and nasty. Since most people respond to those who do them wrong in wrath and anger, they shouldn’t be surprised that the Scriptures use the same words to describe God’s reaction.24 Then Chrysostom adds to what is being said here by noting that what any insulted or injured person desires most is for the guilty paid back. But Christians need not worry, God will give it to them in full measure, provided that believers do not take it out of His hands and avenge it themselves. Leave it to God to follow up the wrongs done to you.25

1 Frédéric Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

2 J. B. Phillips Translation of the New Testament, loc. cit.

3 Cf. Matthew 5:9

4 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

5 Matthew 5:38

6 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

7 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

8 Numbers 32:22

9 Proverbs 3:4

10 Mishnah: Second Division: Mo’ed, Tractate Shekalim, Ch. 3:2

11 See Psalm 131

12 Messianic Bible, On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

13 Deuteronomy 32:41

14 Proverbs 20:22

15 Leviticus 19:18

16 Proverbs 24:29 – Complete Jewish Bible

17 Deuteronomy 32:35

18 Psalm 94:1-2

19 Nahum 1:2

20 Hebrews 10:30 quoting Deuteronomy 32:35-36

21 See Exodus 21:24; Leviticus 24:20; Deuteronomy 19:21; Matthew 5:38-48

22 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

23 See John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 4:15; 9:22a; Hebrews 3:11; 4:3; Revelation 14:10; 16:19; 19:15

24 Diodore: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

25 Chrysostom: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.

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