Do you ever come across those sayings in the Bible that you just cannot figure out? In one sense, you look at what is said, thinking it might mean one thing, but in the time it was written it meant something entirely different. We aren't sheep herders by trade in the Middle East living about 2,000-3,000 years ago, so some of the practices and things said about shepherds just don't make a whole lot of sense. We think the term, "...the sheep know his voice..." is referring to some form of obedience on the part of Christ's followers. In one sense, it could imply this, but in reality, the shepherd would take the newborn lamb, sling it across his shoulders, carrying it there for a period of time until it got used to his voice. Then he'd set it down to walk with the rest of the sheep. In those days, they didn't herd sheep with horses and lots of sheep dogs. They simply called for the sheep, and because they knew the shepherds tone of voice, they followed. A little different meaning when you understand the background, right? The knowledge of "word pictures" and their symbolism is important to help us interpret passages of scripture correctly.
If your enemies are hungry, give them something to eat. And if they are thirsty, give them something to drink. This will be the same as piling burning coals on their heads. And the Lord will reward you. (Proverbs 25:21-22 CEV)
Today's "word picture" is that of giving our enemies food and drink to satisfy their hunger and thirst. Not top of my list in how I would want to treat an enemy. We are told to consider their needs and then to meet them. It becomes apparent that God is reminding us to not hold grudges, to rise above the circumstances, and to trust him with the work of retaliation (if there is to be any at all). Then we come to this word picture of "piling burning coals on their heads" and we are back to trying to figure out what is really being said here because piling hot coals on someone's head actually could burn them! God has just told us to treat our enemies in an "uncommon" manner - by feeding them and giving them drink - meeting their needs. Now he wants us to pile hot coals on their head? What's up with that?
In the times this was written, a man's fire was everything. It was what gave his home light, warmed the chilly rock and clay walls at night, and provided a means to cook his food. Without the fire, the home would be in danger of having their basic needs neglected. In asking us to pile burning coals on their heads, God was asking us to be sensitive to the basic needs of our enemies, returning their lack of kindness with the most basic of kindnesses. Food, drink, and a means to provide what was needed for their household. In the times of yesteryear, the people would have large, thick ceramic bowls which would fit nicely on their heads. They could go to one neighbor, procure some of the hot coals from their fire, and restart their own by bringing back a bowl of those coals. This word picture is just another way of reminding us to care for our enemies as though they were our closest friends.
Why? I think God knows how much this "kind" treatment will baffle our enemies. You see, our enemies expect us to return an unkindness with bitterness, hurtfulness, and even anger. They do not expect us to return their plethora of unkindness with kindnesses due to a close friend! In turn, they not only cannot figure us out, but they get a little convicted by the return of kindness. Our kindness is like a two-edged sword: It keeps us from developing unwholesome thoughts and attitudes toward our enemies; and it baffles the hearts of those who seek to do us wrong. When God tells us to feed, provide drink, and give hot coals to our enemies, he is actually telling us to take up a "weapon" in our arsenal of love which will bring our enemies face-to-face with God's grace in action! Who knew!
Now, lest you think I have this all figured out and get this down perfectly each time someone does something to me which is hurtful and unkind, I don't! I am still learning this whole process, as well. We are in this boat together, my friends. I don't think this is the easiest principle to learn - because retaliation is much easier! As humans, we drift to the easiest first! Then God has to undo what we have done! Whenever we respond as God is asking, he doesn't have any "undoing" to do on our part - in fact, he can "do again" what we have done in kindness and baffle our enemies even more! So, as we are learning this "kindness for unkindness" life lesson, just know this - our enemies are going to be more confused by our kindness than our anger; more "offset" by our giving spirit than our retaliation; and more inclined to wonder about this thing called grace than in finding more ways to hurt us! Kindness shuts down their unkindness - maybe not the first time, but when it is repeated time and time again, they have to walk away in defeat. They did not accomplish what they set out to accomplish - for blessing was not what they wanted to accomplish! Just sayin!