The Meaning of Romans 12:20 Explained

Romans 12:20

KJV: Therefore if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire on his head.

YLT: I will recompense again, saith the Lord;' if, then, thine enemy doth hunger, feed him; if he doth thirst, give him drink; for this doing, coals of fire thou shalt heap upon his head;

Darby: If therefore thine enemy should hunger, feed him; if he should thirst, give him drink; for, so doing, thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.

ASV: But if thine enemy hunger, feed him; if he thirst, give him to drink: for in so doing thou shalt heap coals of fire upon his head.

What does Romans 12:20 Mean?

Verse Meaning

Instead of doing one"s enemy an unkindness the believer should do him or her positive good (cf. Matthew 5:44). This may result in the antagonist feeling ashamed, acknowledging his error, and even turning to God in repentance.
One interpretation of heaping burning coals on his head is that it figuratively describes doing good that results in the conviction and shame of the enemy. The expression supposedly alludes to the old custom of carrying burning coals in a pan. When one"s fire went out at home, a person would have to go to a neighbor and request hot coals that he or she would then carry home in a pan, typically on the head. Carrying the coals involved some danger, discomfort, and uneasiness for the person carrying them. Nevertheless they were the evidence of the neighbor"s love. Likewise the person who receives good for evil feels uncomfortable because of his neighbor"s love. This guilt may convict the wrongdoer of his or her ways in a gentle manner. [1]
A better interpretation, I think, takes the burning coals as a figure of God"s judgment that will come on the enemy if he persists in his antagonism. The figure of "coals of fire" in the Old Testament consistently refers to God"s anger and judgment (cf. 2 Samuel 22:9; 2 Samuel 22:13; Psalm 11:6; Psalm 18:13; Psalm 140:9-10; Proverbs 25:21-22). Thus the meaning appears to be that the Christian can return good for evil with the assurance that God will eventually punish his or her enemy. [2]

Context Summary

Romans 12:9-21 - Living As A Christian
In this section the Apostle shows how the great principle of consecration must affect the details of conduct. It is most necessary to insist on these practical issues. At some impressive religious convention, where the vision of a surrendered and transfigured life is presented, sensitive souls are led to make the vows and claim the plane of life which have been presented; but on their return to the commonplaces, there is no perceptible improvement in their speech, or tone, or attitude. This induces shame and contempt. Hence the great wisdom of the Apostle's particular teaching in this and the following chapters.
The lumbering wagon must be hitched to a star. We must not be star-gazers only. God has endowed us with faith as the receptive faculty, through which we may receive His blessed help. In the power of the Holy Spirit let us set ourselves to our common tasks, thinking humbly and soberly of ourselves, lovingly of our associates, and reverently of God. We are inspired to fulfill the obligations of our position, whether in giving money or in teaching the ignorant; whether in showing mercy or in exercising authority, because all is done as under the eye of the great Master of the household. [source]

Chapter Summary: Romans 12

1  God's mercies must move us to offer ourselves
3  No man must think too well of himself;
6  but everyone attend to the calling wherein he is placed
9  Love, and many other duties are required of us
19  Revenge is especially forbidden

Greek Commentary for Romans 12:20

Feed him [πσωμιζε αυτον]
Quotation from lxx text of Proverbs 25:21f. Present active imperative of verb from πσωμος — psōmos a morsel, and so to feed crumbs to babies, then to feed in general. In N.T. only here and 1 Corinthians 13:3. [source]
Thou shalt heap [σωρευσεις]
Future active of old verb σωρευω — sōreuō from σωρος — sōros a heap. In N.T. only here and 2 Timothy 3:6. Coals of fire (αντρακας πυρος — anthrakas puros). That is, burning or live coals. Anthrax (our “anthracite”) is an old word, only here in N.T. It is a metaphor for keen anguish. The Arabs have a proverb “coals in the heart,” “fire in the liver.” Such kindness may lead to repentance also. [source]
Coals of fire [αντρακας πυρος]
That is, burning or live coals. [source]
Anthrax [our “anthracite”)]
(our “anthracite”) is an old word, only here in N.T. It is a metaphor for keen anguish. The Arabs have a proverb “coals in the heart,” “fire in the liver.” Such kindness may lead to repentance also. [source]
Feed [ψώμιζε]
See on sop, John 13:26. The citation from Proverbs 25:21, Proverbs 25:22, closely follows both Hebrew and Septuagint. [source]
Shalt heap [σωρεύσεις]
Only here and 2 Timothy 3:6. [source]
Coals of fire []
Many explain: The memory of the wrong awakened in your enemy by your kindness, shall sting him with penitence. This, however, might be open to the objection that the enemy's pain might gratify the instinct of revenge. Perhaps it is better to take it, that kindness is as effectual as coals of fire. Among the Arabs and Hebrews the figure of “coals of fire” is common as a symbol of divine punishment (Psalm 18:13). “The Arabians call things which cause very acute mental pain, burning coals of the heart and fire in the liver ” (Thayer, “Lexicon”). Thomas De Quincey, referring to an author who calls this “a fiendish idea,” says: “I acknowledge that to myself, in one part of my boyhood, it did seem a refinement of malice. My subtilizing habits, however, even in those days, soon suggested to me that this aggravation of guilt in the object of our forgiveness was not held out as the motive to the forgiveness, but as the result of it; secondly, that perhaps no aggravation of his guilt was the point contemplated, but the salutary stinging into life of his remorse hitherto sleeping” (“Essays on the Poets”). [source]

Reverse Greek Commentary Search for Romans 12:20

Matthew 5:43 And hate thine enemy [και μισησεις]
This phrase is not in Leviticus 19:18, but is a rabbinical inference which Jesus repudiates bluntly. The Talmud says nothing of love to enemies. Paul in Romans 12:20 quotes Proverbs 25:22 to prove that we ought to treat our enemies kindly. Jesus taught us to pray for our enemies and did it himself even when he hung upon the cross. Our word “neighbour” is “nigh-bor,” one who is nigh or near like the Greek word πλησιον — plēsion here. But proximity often means strife and not love. Those who have adjoining farms or homes may be positively hostile in spirit. The Jews came to look on members of the same tribe as neighbours as even Jews everywhere. But they hated the Samaritans who were half Jews and lived between Judea and Galilee. Jesus taught men how to act as neighbours by the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29.). [source]
John 13:26 Sop [ψωμίον]
Only in this chapter. Diminutive from ψωμός , a morsel, which, in turn, is from ψάω , to rub, or to crumble. Homer, of the Cyclops:“Then from his mouth came bits ( ψωμοί ) of human fleshMingled with wine.”“Odyssey,” ix., 374. And Xenophon: “And on one occasion having seen one of his companions at table tasting many dishes with one bit ( ψωμῷ ) of bread” (“Memorabilia,” iii., 14,15). The kindred verb ψωμίζω , rendered feed, occurs Romans 12:20; 1 Corinthians 13:3. See also Septuagint, Psalm 79:5; Psalm 80:16. According to its etymology, the verb means to feed with morsels; and it was used by the Greeks of a nurse chewing the food and administering it to an infant. So Aristophanes: “And one laid the child to rest, and another bathed it, and another fed ( ἐψώμισεν ) it” (“Lysistrate,” 19,20). This sense may possibly color the word as used in Romans 12:20: “If thine enemy hunger, feed ( ψώμιζε ) him;” with tender care. In 1 Corinthians 13:3, the original sense appears to be emphasized: “Though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor ( ψωμίσω ).” This idea is that of doling away in morsels. Dean Stanley says: “Who that has witnessed the almsgiving in a Catholic monastery, or the court of a Spanish or Sicilian bishop's or archbishop's palace, where immense revenues are syringed away in farthings to herds of beggars, but must feel the force of the Apostle's half satirical ψωμίσω ?” [source]
1 Corinthians 13:3 Bestow [ψωμίσω]
Only here and Romans 12:20. See on sop, John 13:26. The verb means to feed out in morsels, dole out. [source]
2 Timothy 3:6 Laden [σεσωρευμένα]
Only here and Romans 12:20, citation. In lxx, see Romans href="/desk/?q=ro+8:14&sr=1">Romans 8:14; Galatians 5:18. [source]
2 Timothy 3:6 Take captive [αιχμαλωτιζοντες]
“Taking captive.” Present active participle of αιχμαλωτιζω — aichmalōtizō for which see note on 2 Corinthians 10:5; Romans 7:23. Silly women (γυναικαρια — gunaikaria). Literally, “little women” (diminutive of γυνη — gunē), found in Diocles (comedian of 5 century b.c.) and in Epictetus. The word here is neuter (grammatical gender) plural. Used contemptuously here (only N.T. example). Ramsay suggests “society ladies.” It is amazing how gullible some women are with religious charlatans who pose as exponents of “new thought.” Laden with sins Perfect passive participle of σωρευω — sōreuō old word from Aristotle down (from σωρος — sōros a heap) to heap up. In N.T. only here and Romans 12:20. Associative instrumental case αμαρτιαις — hamartiais Divers (ποικιλαις — poikilais). Many coloured. See note on Titus 3:3. One has only to recall Schweinfurth, the false Messiah of forty odd years ago with his “heavenly harem” in Illinois and the recent infamous “House of David” in Michigan to understand how these Gnostic cults led women into licentiousness under the guise of religion or of liberty. The priestesses of Aphrodite and of Isis were illustrations ready to hand. Αγομενα — Agomena (present passive participle) means “continually led astray or from time to time.” [source]
2 Timothy 3:6 Laden with sins [σεσωρευμενα αμαρτιαις]
Perfect passive participle of σωρευω — sōreuō old word from Aristotle down (from σωρος — sōros a heap) to heap up. In N.T. only here and Romans 12:20. Associative instrumental case αμαρτιαις — hamartiais Divers (ποικιλαις — poikilais). Many coloured. See note on Titus 3:3. One has only to recall Schweinfurth, the false Messiah of forty odd years ago with his “heavenly harem” in Illinois and the recent infamous “House of David” in Michigan to understand how these Gnostic cults led women into licentiousness under the guise of religion or of liberty. The priestesses of Aphrodite and of Isis were illustrations ready to hand. Αγομενα — Agomena (present passive participle) means “continually led astray or from time to time.” [source]

What do the individual words in Romans 12:20 mean?

On the contrary If should hunger the enemy of you feed him he should thirst give drink this for doing coals of fire you will heap upon the head of him
Ἀλλὰ Ἐὰν πεινᾷ ἐχθρός σου ψώμιζε αὐτόν διψᾷ πότιζε τοῦτο γὰρ ποιῶν ἄνθρακας πυρὸς σωρεύσεις ἐπὶ τὴν κεφαλὴν αὐτοῦ

Ἀλλὰ  On  the  contrary 
Parse: Conjunction
Root: ἀλλά  
Sense: but.
πεινᾷ  should  hunger 
Parse: Verb, Present Subjunctive Active, 3rd Person Singular
Root: πεινάω  
Sense: to hunger, be hungry.
ἐχθρός  enemy 
Parse: Adjective, Nominative Masculine Singular
Root: ἐχθρός  
Sense: hated, odious, hateful.
σου  of  you 
Parse: Personal / Possessive Pronoun, Genitive 2nd Person Singular
Root: σύ  
Sense: you.
ψώμιζε  feed 
Parse: Verb, Present Imperative Active, 2nd Person Singular
Root: ψωμίζω  
Sense: to feed by putting a bit or crumb (of food) into the mouth.
διψᾷ  he  should  thirst 
Parse: Verb, Present Subjunctive Active, 3rd Person Singular
Root: διψάω  
Sense: to suffer thirst, suffer from thirst.
πότιζε  give  drink 
Parse: Verb, Present Imperative Active, 2nd Person Singular
Root: ποτίζω  
Sense: to give to drink, to furnish drink.
τοῦτο  this 
Parse: Demonstrative Pronoun, Accusative Neuter Singular
Root: οὗτος  
Sense: this.
ποιῶν  doing 
Parse: Verb, Present Participle Active, Nominative Masculine Singular
Root: ποιέω  
Sense: to make.
ἄνθρακας  coals 
Parse: Noun, Accusative Masculine Plural
Root: ἄνθραξ  
Sense: a burning or live coal.
πυρὸς  of  fire 
Parse: Noun, Genitive Neuter Singular
Root: πῦρ  
Sense: fire.
σωρεύσεις  you  will  heap 
Parse: Verb, Future Indicative Active, 2nd Person Singular
Root: σωρεύω  
Sense: to heap together, to heap up.
ἐπὶ  upon 
Parse: Preposition
Root: ἐπί  
Sense: upon, on, at, by, before.
κεφαλὴν  head 
Parse: Noun, Accusative Feminine Singular
Root: κεφαλή  
Sense: the head, both of men and often of animals.
αὐτοῦ  of  him 
Parse: Personal / Possessive Pronoun, Genitive Masculine 3rd Person Singular
Root: αὐτός  
Sense: himself, herself, themselves, itself.