Heaping Burning Coals

Studying Revelation in BSF has kinda put a different spin on Romans for me. Check out these passages [with comments]:

[+] … I saw under the *altar* the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:9-10)

Note to self: Altars have burning coals.

What vengeance might they be praying for, I wonder? Let’s read:

[+] … an angel came and stood at the [same] altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints [who prayed for vengeance] … and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire [and coals] from the altar and threw it on the earth… (Revelation 8:3-5)

Presumably the fire and coals is landing on the heads of people on the earth, so to speak, right?

[+]The first angel blew his trumpet, and there followed hail and fire, mixed with blood, and these were thrown upon the earth. And a third of the earth was burned up, and a third of the trees were burned up, and all green grass was burned up. (Revelation 8:7)

[+]The second angel blew his trumpet, and something like a great mountain, burning with fire… (Revelation 8:8)

(etc, etc, etc)

[+]​​​​​​​​Rejoice over [fallen Babylon], O heaven, ​​​​​​​and you saints and apostles and prophets, ​​​​​​​for God has given judgment for you against her!” ​​​ (Revelation 18:20)

[+]After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“Hallelujah! ​​​​​​​Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, ​​​ ​​​​​​​​for his judgments are true and just; ​​​​​​​for he has judged the great prostitute ​​​​​​​who corrupted the earth with her immorality, ​​​​​​​and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” ​​​ Once more they cried out, ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“Hallelujah! ​​​​​​​The smoke from her goes up forever and ever.” ​​​ (Revelation 19:1-3)

Ahh. So that’s the vengeance he was talking about! Well, all of this makes Rom 12 look a bit more interesting…

[+] Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” (Romans 12:19-20)

I’m not used to hearing people talk about Rom 12 as if it means what it says. I’m not sure why.

Clearly, Paul is telling people to let God take care of vengeance. Vengeance is not something nice and fluffy. It’s painful. If you’re not sure, check out Deuteronomy 32, since that’s the passage Paul is quoting from. (It’s worth reading the whole chapter to see what Paul is getting at.)

Believers, on the other hand, are to be kind and loving to enemies, letting God do the “dirty work”. Which is precisely what we see in Revelation.

I think people should teach this more.


Some people insist that this business of heaping burning coals is actually a blessing. One wonders. Is this more “love opiate” for the masses? I actually heard one preacher say that in remote villages, people would carry burning coals (in baskets on their heads, no less)
from house to house to help neighbors start a cooking fire. And if we’re kind to people and load them down with lots of burning coals, we’re blessing them with the means to stay warm for along time, and have plenty of kindling for food preparation. Riiiiight. I’ve seen lots of Africans carry charcoal in baskets on their heads as they walk to and from village markets, but I’ve never seen anyone carrying BURNING coals on their heads. I think that’s more than just a stretch. Furthermore, what does this peculiar anecdote have to do with the Bible, I wonder? Because fire on the head is never used in the Bible as a blessing. Quite the opposite, actually.

  • Sodom and Gomorrah had fire rained on their heads (Gen 19)
  • David prayed for fire to be rained down on his enemies, so that they would be mortally wounded and never rise ([+]Let burning coals fall upon them! Let them be cast into fire, into miry pits, no more to rise! – Ps 140:10)
  • The fact that this is an OT passage shouldn’t bother us. After all, the passages Paul quotes in Rom 12:19-20 are from the OT.
  • Lastly, although there are a number of times in the Bible where things are put on one’s head, all instances only fall into just a few categories.
    • oil, turban and crowns on the head for bestowing honor
    • hands on the head of sheep/goats prior to them being sacrificed
    • hands on one’s own head as a lament of agony and despair
    • basket of bread on the head (FWIW, the Pharaoh’s butler is the only instance in the Bible where we see someone carrying something on his head. It may be just pure coincidence that the person is killed by the Pharaoh just a few verses later)

If we insist that the NT reference to “coals of fire on the head” are something nice, the justification for this nicety is not only extra-Biblical, it’s suspect! Because each of these NT references is given as an OT quote. Surely the NT writer was trying to communicate something the OT author was already saying. Read Deut 32 (a passage about impending doom and judgment) and then Rom 12:19-20 and you’ll see what I mean.

My opinion: best to not try and co-opt the phrase “pour fiery coals on his head” to mean something nice. As best as I can tell, from Genesis to Revelation (literally!), the Bible seems to run the other direction with it.

I’m open to feedback on this.

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