NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER TWELVE (Lesson XLIV)
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.’7”8 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.18”19
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