Coals of Fire
We dream in the night. We all know this and expect it, but sometimes our dreams are so vivid, they stay with us for days. When I experience this, I know I’m seeing something spiritual…something prophetic. Recently, this happened again.
In my dream, I came quickly around a corner and there, facing me, was a deeply established, long-term, utterly vicious mortal enemy. He saw me at the same moment I saw him, and our instantaneous reaction was to draw swords, and run dead set at each other, fiercely and without mercy. By unspoken agreement it was a fight to the death. Then, as we were surging towards each other with superhero speed and strength, the whole thing simply faded out of view. You’d think such a moment would be searingly traumatic, waking me in a cold sweat, but no. As I reached for my faithful sword, I wasn’t terrorized, but euphoric. This elusive foe had, at long last, been exposed. Pondering all this long and hard in the cold light of day, I could only wonder what visceral, implacable blood instinct was lurking in the deep recesses of my psyche.
A couple of weeks previously, a disturbing incident occurred which must have triggered my subconscious. While going for coffee with a friend and waiting for my order, out of the corner of my eye spotted one of the few people in my life I dare to call a true enemy. Normally, I would simply have given them a wide berth, but when another person was present, calling me over, it presented all kinds of difficulties. Should I hypocritically make small talk as if nothing had happened? Should I just stand there silently, putting the conversational ball in their court? Smile sweetly? How could I possibly navigate these social rapids without violating my own conscience (or start a war)? This was a serious contretemps, and one that is not going away.
Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips, and from a deceitful tongue. What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, you false tongue? Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper. Psalm 120:2-4
It always stuns me how unapologetically Scripture handles the question of enemies. It takes it head on. We’re not even out of the first three chapters when our arch-enemy, Satan, shatters the bliss. The psalmists themselves run the full gamut between violent execration to grieving in a heartfelt lament over the haters they have to deal with. A lot of aspects of enmity, conflict and warfare are characterized for us in the refrains of David. Here, the psalmist feels that ‘fiery darts’ of the enemy (words), should reap hot coals (an expression of torture or punishment). The enemy sowed scorn and slander, so let fire rain down from Heaven! As we’re told that the tongue is a fire, you can see the correlation (James 3:5). Interestingly, this is by no means the only mention of coals in connection with enemies. Proverbs 25:22 references the same connection, but with opposite advice:
“If your enemy be hungry, give him bread to eat; and if he be thirsty, give him water to drink: For you shalt heap coals of fire upon his head, and the Lord shall reward you”.
What on earth does this mean? Obviously, (too bad!) it’s not to be literally administered. What do the hot coals symbolize that they might bring good to someone who wishes me only ill? We get a clue in the words of Jesus: “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt 5:44). Somewhere in these behaviors, there are ‘coals of fire’ worth heaping.
Let’s go back to our Psalm 120 verse. There is a very powerful back-story to it. ‘Coals of juniper’ are exceedingly significant to the nomads of the desert. Juniper is a wood that burns both very long and very, very hot. Archeologists tell of returning to a year-long abandoned campsite, to find the coals banked down, but still glowing. Whenever you deal with love, desire, or blood relationship, you are handling unbelievably combustible substances – coals of fire. The heart is a highly volatile crucible, cascading with molten jealousy. We inherited this from the Lord Himself. In fact, “Our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). When Scripture talks about ‘coals of fire’, it is referencing the very emotion of God. It’s an expression of very intense, undiluted passion; grace and justice in perfect balance. Coals hold great energy; they can be rekindled. Relationships, though neglected, may be re-fired. Enemies, though treacherous, may be disarmed. But handle carefully.
The Psalmist is calling for the hottest, fiercest punishment that can be administered, but in Proverbs 25, this imagery of imprecation gets turned on its ear. Instead of calling down fire and brimstone on their heads, the Lord asking us to come in the opposite spirit. He calls for mercy instead of vengeance. He’s really saying ‘Instead of responding in the fire of your own anger, remind them by your actions, how great the fire of my love is for them’. It’s still burning’.
"Haters gonna hate”. We know this, and it’s unavoidable. In our natural animus, we’d rather war, but through our acts of goodness and kindness, the Holy Spirit can speak into the heart of our enemy. Great discernment is required, though, because some adversaries will still go for our jugular at the first possible opportunity. Others are just people who were never taught they can be lovers, rather than fighters.
I’m still brooding over how to apply all of this to my particular situation. I confess I don’t have a clue how to bless this slippery character in a true spirit without either compromising my stance or pretending sincerity I don’t feel. There are no slick answers, but fortunately, the Holy Spirit has unlimited strategies.