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Those, who argue in this manner, have sought eagerly for a milder interpretation. They conjecture that “ the phrase of heaping coals of fire on his head is taken from melting metals in a crucible ; for, when they melt gold or silver in that manner, they do not only put fire under and round all the sides, but also heap coals upon the head of the crucible and so melt the metal. In allusion to this, Christians are to heap coats of fire (acts of kindness and beneficence) upon the head of an enemy; and so melt down his obstinacy, bring him to temper, and overcome his evil by their good.” *
This is certainly a plausible and ingenious solution; and for a time I was disposed to adopt it. But, upon further consideration, I am persuaded that this mild interpretation cannot be sustained, if we give proper weight to the customary usage of words in the Sacred Writings; to their acceptation among other Jews; to the meaning of the passages from which the words are undoubtedly borrowed; and even the context of this very precept.
First; I believe it is admitted that “ the phrase heaping coals of fire always denotes, in the Old Testament, infliction of punishment from the Almighty."b" Next, the phrase is similarly used in the Talmud", and in the Second Book of Esdras; which I have already mentioned to you as illustrating the language of the New Testament, although unfortunately it is not extant in Hellenistic Greek. The passage is this : “ Let not the sinner say, that he hath not sinned : for God shall burn coals of fire upon his head, which saith before the Lord God and His glory, I have not sinned.”2 Thirdly, the original precept stands in the Book of Proverbs. “ If thine enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink : for thou shalt " heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward thee.” If we compare these verses with verses 17, 18 of the preceding chapter, it will be evident, that the milder interpretation cannot, by any rule of sound criticism, be sustained. “ Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth : Lest the Lord see it, and it displease him, and he turn away his wrath from him."
a Benson in loc.
See Slade in loc. • See Schoettgen. Hor. Hebr. et Talm.
Lastly, I am unable to perceive that any other interpretation suits the general spirit of the passage, except that, which at the first glance no doubt does appear harsh and inconsistent with the mild genius of Christianity. Yet the clause, so much objected to, conveys nearly the same sense, only perhaps in more strong and direct terms, with that which immediately precedes. “ Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath ;” (that is, as usually interpreted, “the wrath of God”;-) “ for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord."
The principle surely of both precepts is the same'; “ Do not inflict punishment, or wreak any vengeance upon any one, who has injured you; but leave him in the hands of Him, who alone knows the extent of human transgression, and alone can adapt his punishment in exact proportion to it. If, instead of any thoughts of vengeance, you do him any act of kindness, then his punishment will needs be increased; if indeed your goodness shall not have the effect of overcoming the evil of his disposition.” I think this saving clause may fairly be inferred from the concluding verse of the chapter, “ Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good.” If this reasoning be allowed to be just, surely our doubt about the real meaning, and even correctness, of the passage in question, will at once vanish. Nor will it be difficult to conjecture the reasons, for which the Apostle proceeded, in so cautious and circuitous a way, to enforce the Christian precept of abstaining from revenge, and rather doing good, than evil, to an enemy. It must be allowed that of all the moral lessons, inculcated by our holy and benevolent religion, this is the hardest for our corrupt nature to comply with. But it was peculiarly hard and offensive to the Gentile converts, with whom vengeance upon an enemy was considered not only desirable, but even laudable. Nay, the conduct of the Jews sufficiently shewed, that, although the real spirit of their religion prescribed a different conduct, they were by no means behind their Gentile brethren in the love and practice of revenge. St. Paul might think that, if he broadly, and without any qualification, enjoined not merely the forgiveness of injuries, but acts of kindness to an
a 2 Esdras, xvi. 53.
b Prov. xxv. 21, 22. c See Rosenm. in loc.
enemy, the precept would appear so repulsive, as to disgust his converts ; but that, if he softened the advice by recommending them to leave all consideration of injuries and of their punishment to the Almighty, he might dispose them to listen to him, and so gradually wean them from the indulgence of vindictive passions. In any case, he inculcated the best course of action; though some appear to think, without suggesting the best motives. After all, perhaps, it may admit a doubt, whether, in the motive he did suggest, he accommodated himself to the peculiar feelings of those he addressed; or whether, acting upon that habitual sense of implicit reverence to the Divine dispensations, which was so deeply implanted in the mind of every Jew, he felt satisfied with teaching what his blessed Master had taught before him, and then with referring the event entirely to Him, who ordereth all things in heaven and earth; and who, among other instruments of His will, employs the agency of human passions to purposes of ultimate good. In either case, it is hoped that the passage
admits a satisfactory explanation; and that, when we take into consideration the state of men's minds in the infancy of the Christian Church, and the mode of expression prevalent among Jews, it will be found consistent at once with the authority of St. Paul as an inspired teacher; and with the character of that Gospel, of which he was a most faithful, as well as able, expounder.
CHARITY TO BE OBSERVED IN RELIGIOUS DIFFERENCES.
ROMANS, xiv. 10.
BUT WHY DOST THOU JUDGE THY BROTHER? OR WHY DOST
THOU SET AT NOUGHT THY BROTHER? FOR WE SHALL ALL
STAND BEFORE THE JUDGEMENT-SEAT OF CHRIST.
Most refreshing it is to the feelings, as well as satisfactory to the judgement, when we make the transition from those questions of a temporary and controversial nature, which present themselves throughout all the former part of this Epistle, to those precepts of everlasting obligation, which occupy our attention in the concluding chapters. No doubt it is our duty, the duty especially of the ministers and expounders of the Gospel, to study every part of its hallowed records ; to make our way, with whatever effort, through the thorns and briers of controversy ; through the mistakes of commentators, the honest misapprehensions of friends, and the insidious mis-statements of enemies. Nevertheless, it cannot be doubted but the more pleasing part of our office, both as regards ourselves and our hearers, is to employ ourselves in those passages, which are perspicuous and practical.; which come home to our feelings and bosoms; and which not merely point out our duty, but set it forth