Faithlife Corporation

<< Previous | Next >>

Hermeneutics in Bible Study

Prayerful Bible study is the means by which a believer’s relationship with God may become more intimate and practical.  Knowing the Word of God is critical in dealing with the turbulence of life on earth.   Pragmatically, however, the key is not in knowledge of the Word, but in understanding and application.  Hermeneutics is the science and art by which the meaning of biblical text is determined [1] and by which one’s Bible study can become Bible application.  Proposed here is a Bible study of Romans 12:20, a particularly difficult passage with some very real world applications.  Presented utilizing the Romans passage as an illustration are hermeneutical principles that may be applied to gain the most from any Bible study.

The Letter from Paul to the Romans is an “organized and carefully presented statement of his [Paul’s] faith” [2].  Paul provided the people of Rome, and consequently us as Christians today, instructions on what to believe, in terms of the sinfulness of mankind, forgiveness of sin, and freedom from sin.  Given this knowledge, Paul goes on to instruct on how we are to behave.  Paul characterizes and details our personal responsibilities, given God’s plan of redemption.  Through understanding Paul’s inspired writing, amalgamated with the remainder of the Bible, we hope to more fully comprehend the nature of God.

Paul’s expert knowledge of Old Testament Scripture is evident in the crafting of the book of Romans.  Inspired by God, he defends each of his arguments skillfully by selectively presenting the most appropriate excerpt from the holy writings.  Paul either quotes or alludes to the Old Testament at least forty-five times throughout Romans [3].  Deep within this letter to the early Christian church of the west, Paul quotes from Proverbs 25:21-22:  “Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’”  Paul’s quotations from the Old Testament were meant to support, clarify, and illustrate his arguments in the minds of the letter’s recipients.  However, to the modern day reader, this quotation may read as somewhat of an oxymoron.  The contrasting images create an unsettling conflict which begs to be resolved.  

It may at times seem more appropriate for the modern reader to continue on without reconciling a conflicting image such as Paul’s reference to “coals of fire.”  But the difficulty lays in reconciling Paul’s instructions on practical application of Christianity, in helping those in need (even our enemies), with the alluded to motivation, technique, and results presented in this passage.  While loving our enemies might seem a contradiction to the uninitiated, it is not the basis of any conflict for the informed believer.  This idea was a clear theme of Jesus in the Gospels.   In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44).  This concept, therefore, does not serve as a difficulty for those Christians in Rome having access to and being familiar with the Gospels, nor does it cause discord in our understanding.  However, the image that we will “heap coals of fire on his head”, the head of our enemy we are there to feed and provide drink, brings connotations of pain and suffering, vengeance and anger, judgment and retribution.  This is in stark contrast to the love taught by Jesus, and here in Romans 12, by Paul. “Surely that is not the result to be achieved by acts of kindness. Could Paul be saying that doing good to one’s enemies is an indirect way of punishing them?” [4]

Many interpreters have wrestled with providing a satisfactory explanation for Paul’s selection of this particular scripture and more importantly reaching a satisfactory understanding of the God’s message and resulting implications.  What is Paul telling us in terms of practical application and motivation of our Christianity, as well as a resulting description of the nature of God?  How is one to interpret this passage in their own Bible study?  Matthew Henry, dating back to the eighteenth century, provides two proposals for interpreting the heaping coals.  In one, he suggests the coals on your enemies head are to “melt him into repentance and friendship, and mollify his spirit towards thee”.  His second concept is that “it will aggravate his condemnation, and make his malice against thee the more inexcusable. Thou wilt hereby hasten upon him the tokens of God’s wrath and vengeance’’ [5].  Even though in full context, Matthew Henry is appropriately suggesting that our motivations towards our enemies should be love and not revenge, his suggested interpretation of the “…for in so doing…” of Romans 12:20 leads one to believe we are to show kindness to our enemy to either 1) cause the enemy to repent, feel guilt and remorse, and see the error or his ways, or 2) cause him shame and anguish and bring on God’s wrath more quickly.  Neither of these proposals fit within any of Paul’s themes in the book of Romans.

Misunderstandings and misrepresentations of this verse can and have become misapplications through history in various cultures.  It is rumored that when missionaries taught these scriptures, some local natives thought they had been given permission to dump buckets of coals on the heads of their sleeping enemies [6].  Even Christians have gone forward with such an attitude.  Though not quoting Romans 12:20, but quoting similarly misunderstood verses such as Leviticus 24:20, “…fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him.”  Therefore, one can clearly see the importance of resolving the perceived conflict in Romans 12:20 and the necessity for proper interpretation, in light of the impact on understanding the nature of God and the potential practical application or misapplication.

Errors in interpretation and in application derived from personal Bible studies are normally caused by poor hermeneutical technique and effort.  Hermeneutics is defined as the science and art by which the meaning of the biblical text is determined [7].  Robertson McQuilkin in his book Understanding and Applying the Bible provides a number of principles and guidelines for hermeneutics applicable to personal Bible study.  One of his first principles states, “Since the Bible was written by human beings, it must be treated as any other human communication in determining the meaning intended by the writer” [8]. Therefore, we must first closely examine the language and important words used by Paul.

Differing translations are a key resource in Bible study.  English translations of Paul’s original Greek text reveal widely diverging interpretations of the Romans 12:20.  As already shown, more literal Bible translations such as the King James and New King James versions contain some confusing images that may not be clearly understood by the modern reader: “Therefore ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.’”  Freer translations, such as The Message, take a little more liberty with interpretation: “Our Scriptures tell us that if you see your enemy hungry, go buy that person lunch, or if he’s thirsty, get him a drink. Your generosity will surprise him with goodness.”  Other dynamically equivalent translations, such as The New Living Translation, present a different understanding: “If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink, and they will be ashamed of what they have done to you.”  Today’s English version is similar:  “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them a drink; for by doing this you will make them burn with shame.”

Original language resources serve as an advanced, but often indispensable tool for personal Bible study.  When looking at the original Greek words Paul used, we must focus on the phrase “heap coals of fire on his head.”  The Greek word soreuo appears only twice in the New Testament, here and in 2 Timothy 3:6.  Strong’s Concordance defines it as a verb “to heap together, to heap up” or “to overwhelm one with a heap of anything.”  Strong’s also defines the word use metaphorically to mean “to load one with the consciousness of many sins” [9].  In 2 Timothy 3:6, the New King James version translates the same word soreuo in context, “For of this sort are those who creep into households and make captives of gullible women loaded down with sins, led away by various lusts.” 

The Greek word anthrax, translated "burning coals," appears only this one time in the New Testament.  It is from this word that we get our English word "anthrax" (an infectious disease of warm-blooded animals caused by a spore-forming bacterium, transmissible to humans especially by the handling of infected products (as wool), and characterized by external ulcerating nodules or by lesions in the lungs) [10]. Again, Strong’s Concordance adds to the literal definition with a metaphorical interpretation, “A proverbial expression signifying to call up, by favours you confer on your enemy, the memory in him of the wrong he has done you (which shall pain him as if live coals were heaped on his head), that he may the more readily repent” [11].  Whether Strong’s is correct in the addition of these metaphorical interpretations is the subject of this paper’s illustration.  However, Strong’s tends to add to the disunity when one looks at the same words of the quoted passage from Proverbs 25:21-22, originally in the Hebrew language.  Strong’s references for the Hebrew word “heap” and “coals of fire” do not contain notes on metaphorical interpretation.  One must ask why the same inspired sentences, one in Hebrew and one in Greek, would not contain the same metaphorical meaning.  Whatever has become clear, it is that in both the Old and New Testament, this passage is a figure of speech, finding its meaning rooted in the literary context and societal culture of the time.  

Another McQuilkin principle regarding the treatment of human communication applicable to personal Bible study is to “identify figurative language and determine its literal meaning” [12].  According to McQuilkin’s guidelines, “heap coals of fire on his head” is clearly figurative language because of its irrationality if taken literally.  The doing of favor to someone does not literally heap coals of fire on their head.  Technically, the term should be considered idiomatic.  That is, “an expression in the usage of a language that is peculiar to itself either grammatically or in having a meaning that cannot be derived from the conjoined meanings of its elements” [13].  Similarly, those unfamiliar with Hebrew idioms will not understand that the “children of the bridechamber” of Matthew 9:15 (KJV) are the friends of the bridegroom, or wedding guests, and that “heap coals of fire on his head” is not a way of torturing people to death [14]. To understand these idioms, the reader must have some knowledge of the original language, but more important is familiarity with the history, archaeology, and customs of the early culture.

McQuilken’s hermeneutical guidelines instruct one to base their Bible study on “the historical, physical, and cultural setting” [15]. Commentators have provided us many interesting explanations for the cultural significance of the idiom “heap coals of fire on his head.”  Commentator John MacArthur claims the phrase refers to an ancient Egyptian custom: 
 "When a person wanted to demonstrate public contrition, he would carry on his head a pan of burning coals to represent the burning pain of his shame and guilt. The point here is that, when we love our enemy and genuinely seek to meet his needs, we shame him for his hatred." [16]

Calvary Chapel Pastor John Corson makes a claim, without footnote, that the coals of fire were to be considered a physical blessing from a neighbor:  

"In Paul’s day, when a fire went out in a home, it was difficult to reignite it. Therefore, if someone’s fire went out, the women would carry live coals in clay jars upon their heads to share with the person who had no fire. Thus, the implication here was not of burning one’s enemy, but of warming him in order to ultimately win him to the kingdom." [17

Neither of these cultural suppositions bears much historical or archeological support.  In fact, Corson’s explanation is flawed if it is dependent on a cultural practice of Paul’s day, as stated.  Paul is quoting scripture most likely written by Solomon some thousand years prior.  The idiom must find its meaning in its original time.  Additional evidence indicates that coal may have been unknown to the Hebrews. “Charcoal was used by the wealthy and by smiths, while the poor gathered their own sticks. Ezekiel refers to the use of dried dung as a fuel, a practice which [continues] today among the poor” [18]. 

Together, the multitude of hypothesis regarding idiomatic meaning, culture, and literal translation serve only to extend the discord within these verses.  In order to properly understand Paul’s intent, and more clearly understand the resultant image of God’s character, we must follow other McQuilken guidelines for Bible study and examine the verses as a unit of thought, in the immediate context, with the passage and book as a whole [19].  

The verse in question is contained deep within Paul’s exhortation of Romans 12, that begins with, “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service” (Romans 12:1).  Paul continues with an admonition to, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good” (Romans 12:9).  Leading up to his quotation from Proverbs, Paul introduces the concept of Romans 12:14, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.”  Paul takes his thought one step further in verse 19, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath…”  

Clearly Romans 12 contains God’s instructions for us to love as an action. We are to love even if it is a sacrifice. We are to love, even our enemies.  Additionally, it isn’t good enough to offer casual kindness and counterfeit the love.  The love must be without hypocrisy.  If one were to provide food and drink to an enemy, as directed in Romans 12:20, with a purpose in their heart of causing their enemy to burn with shame, or even a desire for them to repent, it would be flawed. Paul would never consider this love action as a sacrificial love.  Loving to receive any return or result is love with hypocrisy. 

How then in a Bible study is one to understand the burning coals that will be heaped on the enemies head? To assume that the burning coals are some sort of favor or good will is naïve, ignores preferred literal translation, and is supported by conjecture. This interpretation is an attempt to portray God’s nature as perfectly loving while ignoring that he is perfectly just.  

Paul adds one word to his quotation of Proverbs. He introduces the quote with the word “Therefore.”  This introduction points the quotation directly to the previous verse, another quotation from the Old Testament, “for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord.”  The “heaping coals of fire” refers directly to the vengeance of the Lord. God is telling us that those who are our enemies, those who do not walk after Him, who persecute us as He was persecuted, will suffer. God’s plan is perfectly just.  Justice may not appear immediate in our timeframe, but on God’s scale of eternity, judgment comes.  Judgment however, is not our realm.  We are instructed to overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

McQuilken instructs us that during Bible study we cannot properly “determine the meaning of a passage independent of the rest of Scripture” [20].  Our worldview as believers acknowledges that the Bible is inspired and true in every part.  Therefore, when seeking the meaning of one passage we must seek unity with all other Bible teachings related to it.  Of particular concern to us are the words of Jesus presented in the Gospels.

On a hillside near Capernaum, Jesus spoke to the masses about vengeance and our enemies.  Jesus told us, “Whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. If anyone wants to sue you and take away your tunic, let him have your cloak also” (Matthew 5:39-40).  The teachings Jesus gave on the mount turned everything upside down for those who thought they understood God.  Jesus added no qualifier in his command to love our enemies, making it easier to swallow.  In fact, he went on to tell us about the Father, “He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust”.  These words are as if to say, not only is vengeance mine, but it is not even for you to comprehend.  Simply put, “Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

The most critical step in Bible study is application, words that transform the soul and move one personally to action.  Based upon the preponderance of evidence, I must conclude that God is perfectly righteous and just in judgment.  In fact, for me this is the basis of the Gospel message.  We all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).  The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23).  But my sins have been paid by His death.  My enemies, who are his enemies, must face the same vengeance that Jesus reconciled for me.  For those facing his wrath without the intercession of Jesus, it will be as if coals of fire were heaped on his head.

I must reconcile what is to me a difficult quotation from Proverbs in light of Paul’s entire teaching in Romans, and those of Jesus in the Gospels. To understand the difficult teachings of the Bible, I must sometimes rely on those teachings which are simple.  It is clear that both Paul and Jesus intend me to love and serve my enemy, without any consideration, hesitation, or reservation. This is agape love.

Jesus is concerned more for my motivations in doing good, in loving my neighbor, in loving my enemy, than in the work itself.  With this command that seems so impossible to follow on my own, I must make a conscious decision to serve those who persecute me.  The words Paul chose to describe the results of these good acts have allusions to “overwhelming” and “ulcerating lesions” caused by hot coals.  I cannot hide behind a Sunday School image of Christ as being perfectly loving, denying that He would actually ever execute the promised judgment against those who deny his salvation. Additionally, I cannot satisfy Christ’s personal command to me if I am motivated by any desire to hasten that judgment against others, any desire to improve upon God’s righteousness, or even with a motivation to redeem or reform my enemy through heaping blessings or by heaping shame.  I am called simply to love.  The remainder is God’s realm. 

Unless otherwise stated, all scripture quotes from The New King James Version (NKJV) (1996, c1982). Nashville: Thomas Nelson. Other Bible versions quoted, as annotated:

American Bible Society. (1992). The Holy Bible : Today's English Version (2nd ed.). New York: American Bible Society.
Holy Bible : New Living Translation (1997). Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House.
The Holy Bible : King James Version (1995). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.
Peterson, E. H. (2003). The Message : The Bible in contemporary language. Colorado Springs, Colo.: NavPress.

[1] Newberry, Brian (2004). “Hermeneutics Lecture Outline Notes.” Murrieta, Ca.: Calvary Chapel Bible College, Section IV.
[2] Life Application Study Bible (1988, 1989, 1990, 1991). Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.:Wheaton, IL and Zondervan Publishing House:Grand Rapids, MI., p2023.
[3] Swanson, J., & Nave, O. (1994). New Nave's. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems.
[4] Kaiser, W. C. (1997, c1996). Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove, Il.: InterVarsity.
[5] Henry, M. (1996, c1991). Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible. Peabody: Hendrickson.
[6] Unknown Author (2004), Streams of Living Water [On-line]. Available:
[7] Newberry, Brian (2004). “Hermeneutics Lecture Outline Notes.” Murrieta, Ca.: Calvary Chapel Bible College, Section IV.
[8] McQuilkin, Roberson (1983, 1992). Understanding and Applying the Bible. Chicago: The Moody Press, p11.
[9] Strong, J. (1996). The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible (electronic ed.). Ontario: Woodside Bible Fellowship.
[10] Merriam-Webster, I. (1996, c1993). Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.). Springfield, Mass.: Merriam-Webster.
[11] Strong.
[12] McQuilkin, p10.
[13] Merriam-Webster, I.
[14] Karleen, P. S. (1987). The Handbook to Bible Study. New York: Oxford University Press.
[15] McQuilkin, p9.
[16] MacArthur, J. (1996, c1991, c1994). Romans. Chicago: Moody Press.
[17] Courson, J. (2003). Jon Courson's Application Commentary. Nashville, Tn.: Thomas Nelson.
[18]  Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible Dictionary (3rd ed.). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
[19] McQuilken, p10.
[20] McQuilken, p209.

Submitted by Kenneth Strayer