If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink; for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you. Proverbs 25:21-22
Will reward – Does this translation make sense to you? Is God promising to give you a reward for acting as He would act toward those who oppose you? Are we supposed to bless our enemies in order that we get something from God? Maybe there’s another way to look at this familiar verse. Maybe the LXX translation (“the Lord will reward you with good things”) misdirects us. Commentators suggest that “reward” is a synonym for reconciliation, but I see nothing here that supports this view. We are to act benevolently, period. There is no promise that this will result in a change of heart in our enemy. God “rewards,” not the enemy. Apparently something else is happening.
The Hebrew verb used here is shalam. You will notice immediately that it is connected to shalom. Shalam means “to be safe, to be completed.” By extension it becomes a description of reconciliation, peace, reward and restoration, but its primary meaning is simply protection. If we used this meaning, then our verse would say, “for you will heap red-hot blessings on his head, and YHWH will protect you.” Doesn’t that make more sense? We are facing our personal enemies. They hate us and the oppose God. They are enemies because they do not wish us shalom. But we are to act with shalom toward them. By doing so, we make ourselves vulnerable. But God will protect! It seems to me that the context of these verses require the primary use of shalam, not the extended metaphorical uses. If I am going to act benevolently toward someone who intends me harm, I need protection. That’s what God promises. Not material gain. Not personal reconciliation. Protection.
I can act benevolently toward those who are my enemies because God is sovereign and He promises that when I act on His behalf, He will watch over me.
What a relief! We can confidently proceed with the fulfillment of Torah obligations toward enemies. We have nothing to fear because He is sovereign. We don’t do it for the money. We don’t do it for the chance of reconciliation. We do it because He loved us when we were enemies. But we bless with His blessing – and that’s what we really need.
Topical Index: enemy, reward, shalam, protect, Proverbs 25:21-22