Here is a proverb that is usually misunderstood because of the phrase that is used in it. The phrase to which I refer is where we are told that we will "heap burning coals on his head," when we are kind to our enemy. Of course, our intial thought is by doing good to our enemy - we will burn his head or melt it. Heaping burning coals on someone usually has that effect - scorching their head. But the phrase that is used does not mean this. It actually is a phrase that speaks of blessing another. Let's take a look at this phrase and how it counsels the wise man to act toward his enemies.
The call for the wise man is to give his enemy food when he is hungry and water if he is thirsty. The reason he is to do this is to act with mercy and with love - even toward someone who considers him an enemy. This is a way that the world sees that we are radically different than they are. We do not seek revenge on our enemies, but rather to show mercy - even as we have been shown mercy by God. It is important for us to remember that at one time we were enemies with God. He did not pour out his wrath upon us, rather He gave us mercy and grace. He had His wrath poured out upon His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ - and instead gives us grace to be made righteous in His sight. Therefore the call to be merciful and loving toward our enemies is a call to be like God Himself.
The problem comes when we look at why we do this. The passage says that by doing this we will pour burning coals upon our enemies - upon their foreheads. When we do this, God rewards us for acting in this way. One view of this is that conviction is in order - and that is what happens when the burning coals are put on our enemies. Thus this phrase is seen as judgment on them - because let's be honest - who wants their forehead burned up with burning coals? But the phrase used here is a Hebraism - a Hebrew expression they would understand - but we would not.
The picture here is of a very loving, very merciful deed toward our enemies. The idea here is of placing coals that are already hot into a clay pot or some other kind of insulated container. That container would then be carried, often on the head, to the person's fire pit, which has been extinguished. They would then take the coals and re-ignite their fire so that they could cook their food. This was a very loving and merciful act on their behalf, because it was not an easy thing to have a fire of coals lit for someone. This act of mercy and love would be very beneficial to the enemy - and would help to melt their hardened heart against the one who acted with such grace.
The wise man knows that winning an enemy is a difficult thing. He also knows that prolonging a fight is not to his advantage unless there is no way to reach his enemy - or his enemy is actively seeking to destroy him. In these cases one must defend himself. But if possible it is better to win over your enemy. There is a picture of this in the book of 2 Kings in the life of Elisha. The king of Aram was furious that Elisha could predict by God's power everywhere the Arameans would prepare to attack Israel. In a rage he sent his entire army to kill Elisha. As the army approached Elisha prayed that they would all be struck blind. Then he led them into Samaria where Israel could destroy them. But look at what God led them to do - and the result.
"When they had come into Samaria, Elisha said, “O Lord, open the eyes of these men, that they may see.” So the Lord opened their eyes and they saw; and behold, they were in the midst of Samaria. Then the king of Israel when he saw them, said to Elisha, “My father, shall I kill them? Shall I kill them?” He answered, “You shall not kill them. Would you kill those you have taken captive with your sword and with your bow? Set bread and water before them, that they may eat and drink and go to their master.” So he prepared a great feast for them; and when they had eaten and drunk he sent them away, and they went to their master. And the marauding bands of Arameans did not come again into the land of Israel." It would have been easy to destroy the Arameans, but instead God led Elisha to counsel them to feed them with a feast. When they did so - it made their enemies turn away from their destrutive ways - and they no longer sent marauding bands into Israel any longer. Remember this, for it is wisdom of the highest order, mercy triumphs over judgment. Therefore God paid the judgment, and showed us mercy in Christ. Oh that we would be wise enough to do the same with our enemies. When we do, they will see a glorious display of the very gospel that is at the heart of what God is and does among men.