Ezekiel 36:24-32: Heaping Coals

Grace is the invincible advocate of freedom
and the absolute expression of perfect love.
— Gerald G. May (Addiction and Grace)

I have heard some Christians refer to “the ministry of heaping coals”. It’s a reference to a concept first written in Proverbs 25:21-22 (NRSV):

If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat;
and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink;
for you will heap coals of fire on their heads,
and the LORD will reward you.

The idea is this: be uncharacteristically gracious to your enemies, and it will shame them for their poor behaviour to you.

That sort of attitude always bothered me—it seems like a moral standard well below Jesus-inspired levels. Should we be good to our enemies in order to shame them? Should shaming be our motivation?

This passage from Ezekiel shows that shaming is not necessarily the motivation, but a necessary consequence of grace. In this passage, Yahweh himself engages in the ministry of heaping coals.

. . .

The list of good things Yahweh is about to do for Israel is quite overwhelming. The repeated “I will” sentences elevate the rhetoric to a frenzy:

  • I will take you from the nations to your own land.
  • I will sprinkle clean water on you and clean you from idolatry.
  • I will give you a new heart—a new spirit—exchanging your heart of stone for flesh.
  • I will put my spirit in you.
  • I will save you from your uncleanness.
  • I will make your land bear fruit.

This is the sort of speech that could come from a televangelist: You can just hear the crowd shouting “yes” and “amen” after each sentence.

It would be easy to spend a long time rambling on about each of the above points, but I’ll satisfy myself with pointing out the one that impacted me the most. Salvation is ultimately from uncleanness. You would expect the most important aspect of God’s salvation to be deliverance from physical enemies, but the prophet understood those enemies as a consequence, not a cause. God will save Israel from their sin. Return from exile is the practical outworking of that grace.

. . .

The last verses of this passage explains the ministry of heaping coals:

Then you shall remember your evil ways, and your dealings that were not good; and you shall loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominable deeds. (v. 31, NRSV)

Shaming Israel was not God’s primary motivation (that was the exaltation of his name). It was not even God’s secondary concern (restoring his people). Shame is a natural response to such profound grace.

. . .

Lord God, I am shamed and deeply humbled by your grace in my life. Let me always live and act from an understanding of your mercy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

< Ezekiel 36:16-23 | My Sake

Ezekiel 36:33-38 | Even More >

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One Response to Ezekiel 36:24-32: Heaping Coals

  1. Robin October 15, 2014 at 7:25 am #

    Amen to your response to the “heaping coals” ministry! That has never sat right with me either. It doesn’t make any sense, either from a godly or practical standpoint (I feel as if I’ve just insulted God: he is the most practical person I know).

    Practically speaking, how do I know that my “grace” (not even close) is going to have its desired effect? How bad will the other person really feel about themselves? Is it enough to satisfy my desire for revenge and self-justification (because that’s what this really is)? Or will they gleefully accept my hospitality and rudely ask for more? Will they get my point? What is my point exactly?

    As for godliness, how godly is it to enjoy the prospect of another man’s suffering? Didn’t God himself say in Ezekiel 33:11, “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?”

    It’s all about attitude – MY attitude, no matter at what end of the stick I am.

    It’s such a pity that we make it NECESSARY for God to allow us to suffer to such extremes before we see the destruction ahead (sometimes just millimetres from our faces). I praise God for giving me a new heart and spirit and for, through his Spirit, moving me to follow his decrees and follow his laws (Ezekiel 36:26, 27).

    It’s interesting that, although God blots out our transgressions, for his own sake, and remembers our sins no more (Isaiah 43:25), we will remember our evil ways and wicked deeds, and we will loathe ourselves for our sins and detestable practices (Ezekiel 36:31). We’d probably think it’d be nice if God could perform a mind-wipe and erase our sins from our memory, and I’ve been told by a few Christians to “fuggedaboudit,” but that memory to me is like a giant yellow and black DANGER sign for when I am tempted to get too close to that cesspool of sin again. It also points me to the reality of where my salvation lies:

    “Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. BUT NOW IN CHRIST JESUS YOU WHO ONCE WERE FAR AWAY HAVE BEEN BROUGHT NEAR BY THE BLOOD OF CHRIST” (Ephesians 2:11-13).

    When you remember how hot the fire is, you’re less likely to touch it again.

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