Do you have a favourite Bible verse? If so, why is it your favourite? Is it a beautifully written piece of literature, or does it mean something special to you?
For me, favouritism tends to have less to do with what I like the best and more to do with the journey and memories surrounding the object.
Take pecans. They’re good, but I don’t like the flavour of them particularly more than other nuts. Cashews are quite delicious, for example, and pistachios are quick to disappear from my house.
But my great grandparents didn’t have cashew or pistachio trees—they had a pecan tree.
Whenever I would visit them for Thanksgiving, it would be nut season, and I’d get to go out in their yard, shake the nuts off the tree, crack them open, and share the sweet treat with my family. Because of those memories, pecans are firmly ingrained as my favourite nut.
When it comes to Bible verses, my favourite is definitely Proverbs 25:21-22: “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for so you will heap coals of fire on his head, and the Lord will reward you.”
Like with pecans, however, the reason this is my favourite verse is less because of what it says, and more because of the journey it took me to learn what I believe it means.
On the surface, this is how it reads to me, and this is how a lot of interpretations I’ve heard slant it: When someone who has been unkind to me and a thorn in my side is in need, I should not be unkind back to them. Rather, I should be as kind as possible. In doing so, I will shame my enemy and make them feel embarrassed by how much better I am than they are, and the Lord will reward me.
When I read the verse like that, it doesn’t appeal to me at all. Sure, it says to be kind to my enemies, something I agree with, but the motivation behind it—to shame my enemies—feels like less than the mark to hit. That seems almost like an act of vengeance.
While it’s true that God is a God of justice as much as he is a God of love, it doesn’t feel quite in keeping with his character to build a relationship’s foundation in revenge.
I expect the verse to resonate more with “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:39), or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” (Matthew 7:12), character models that ground interpersonal relationships in love rather than vengeance.
I grappled with the apparent disparity in Proverbs 25 until I read it in the Amplified Bible version (now known as the “Amplified Bible Classic Edition,” since a new version has since come out). In the Amplified, the words remain relatively the same, but a footnote always catches my eye: “This is not to be understood as a revengeful act intended to embarrass its victim, but just the opposite.
The picture is that of the high priest (Lev. 16:12) who, on the Day of Atonement, took his censer and filled it with ‘coals of fire’ from off the altar of burnt offering, and then put incense on the coals to create a pleasing, sweet-smelling fragrance. The cloud or smoke of the incense covered the mercy seat and was acceptable to God for atonement. Samuel Wesley wrote:/ ‘So artists melt the sullen ore of lead,/ By heaping coals of fire upon its head:/ In the kind warmth the metal learns to glow,/ And pure from dross the silver runs below.’ ”
As mentioned, other versions, commentaries, and people give different interpretations to these verses, so I feel it is beyond me to claim that this image is the “correct” interpretation. That said, I do believe this picture of atonement is congruent with God’s character and worthy of study and remembrance.
Suddenly, heaping coals is no longer a picture of searing pain, a reddened face, back bent under the weight of fire. Instead, it is a loving glow, a purifying smelting, sloughing off a crust of “enemy” and revealing the person within, someone whom God loves and whom we love as well. Through our kindness, we’ve helped another person learn of God’s compassion, freed them to become silver. The command to heap coals is not to shame, but to bring renewal.
To me, that is a worthy foundation for relationships, and so I try to keep those verses near the front of my mind. As we go and face our enemies, let us remember that there is more to them than their unkindness, more to them than their affronts. They are people, and through our actions, we can help them become pure silver, their lives becoming an honorable offering to the Lord, just as ours should be.
In the light of that knowledge, I rejoice.