Heaping Burning Coals on 9/11

Ten years ago today I was sitting in my office at Tickets.com in Fairfax, Virginia. I was on the phone with my boss, and she was doing my yearly review. As we were chatting, she mentioned she saw a report on TV that a plane crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. She and I both assumed it was pilot error with a small plane…until…of course…a second aircraft hit the other tower. At that point, she couldn't continue.

And, of course, that wasn't the end of that day's havoc…a third airliner was used as a missile into the side of the Pentagon, and a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania thanks to brave passengers who weren't going to allow their flight to be used to victimize anyone else.

  • We all saw the images of the planes crashing into the sides of those buildings.
  • We all saw the flames and smoke coming from the upper floors.
  • We all saw people who decided it was better to jump then to be burned to death. I saw one article that said it was around 200. 200!
  • We all saw the unimaginable collapse of both buildings…as if someone had carefully set explosive charges to bring them straight down.
  • And we all knew that not only were many of the buildings' occupants killed by the impact of the airliners, the heat of the inferno, and the the massive weight of the structures' concrete and steel falling on top of them…but that that final result of the evil acts also killed firefighters, policeman, and other emergency personnel.

Over 400 hundred first responders who…like every other victim…started that day just like any other day…

Altogether between the four terrorist attacks almost 3,000 died, including the 19 hijackers.

[ These are quick sermon notes…not cleaned-up…and missing the "extras" that come out in the audio (which is available here). All quotes are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted. ]

Rot in Hell

It almost seems blasphemous to count the 19 perpetrators of those crimes in the same number as their innocent victims. If anything, many Americans probably got satisfaction out of the idea that instead of being greeted by 72 virgins in the afterlife, those villainous jihadists all were "thrown into hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:47-48).

I'm not saying that we all felt that way…but I do suspect we all generally get a sense of satisfaction when an vile wicked people get their "just deserts."

No, it doesn't actually make things better…but boy, it make us feel better.

Heaping Coals

Last week, as we chatted about how we would respond to a cranky and sharp-tongued Sylvia, we looked at Romans 12:18-21…although we also added verse 17 after the fact. Let's look at Romans 12:17-21 again:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. 18 If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord." 20 To the contrary, "if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head." 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

  • As you remember what you saw that day.
  • As you think of the poor people on the receiving end of a call from the doomed just before they died.
  • As you think of all the fatherless and motherless children those followers of the "religion of peace" caused.

Do you hope that those 19 men, right now, have plenty of coals being heaped on their heads right now…and for all eternity?

At least a little bit?

Is it it wrong if you do?

When I shared Paul's advice I said "if you overcome evil with good because you want him or her to face God's wrath…for our Lord to get vengeance…or to heap burning coals on his or her head…then again you aren't getting the point. :-)"

Am I wrong? Is it okay to want evil people to suffer?

Imprecatory Psalms

I mean, it's not just the 12 chapter of Romans that wishes ill on enemies…for instance:

Make them bear their guilt, O God;

let them fall by their own counsels;

because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,

for they have rebelled against you (Psalm 5:10).

Not too much praying for those who persecute you in that, is there?

9 The LORD has heard my plea;

the LORD accepts my prayer.

10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;

they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment (Psalm 6:9-10)

Not a whole bunch of loving your enemies in that one, is there?

And how about scripture I've shared before…one I read to my family when I decided to open the Bible to a random section:

8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,

blessed shall he be who repays you

with what you have done to us!

9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones

and dashes them against the rock! (Psalm 137:8-9)

Ignoring the fact it was a regrettable selection for a family devotion…it is yet another case of what is referred to as an imprecatory psalm…a psalm that wishes ill on the psalmist's and/or God's enemies.

I didn't actually count, but one book I looked at listed at least a few dozen scriptures that are imprecatory.

If the Bible is our handbook…the only place we look for how to act and how to live…

Then can I say there is anything wrong for you to wish ill on those who mistreat you, mistreat those you care for, or mistreat any other victim for that matter?

If you were cheered by the news that Osoma bin Laden got a double-tap, should you say four Hail Marys for penance?

Weighing Scriptures

I've also previously mentioned a man I greatly respected, Graham Maxwell, said something like, "We don't count scriptures, we weigh them." Even if I can't come up with an equal list of "do not return evil for evil" references (not that they don't exist), let's do a little weighing.

First, let's look at one that I've indirectly referenced. It's Matthew 5:43-46:

43 "You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.

I don't know about you…but those are hard words for me. I'm not a vengeful or vindictive individual…but I need to love those who have made my life miserable?! I need to pray for those who hate me and make no effort to hide it?!

Clearly Jesus was using hyperbole to make a point, right? There is no way that He really expects that. When someone really wrongs you you have a right to curse them like the imprecatory psalmists did, don't you?

For instance, let's say you are truly innocent…but accused of great crimes. After being convicted by a kangaroo court you are tortured and then killed in a humiliating manner because you stood up for righteousness and God. In your dying breath shouldn't you have the right to ask for some sulfur to rain to come down on your tormentors? They would deserve it, wouldn't they?

How about the One who uttered those difficult words in the book of Matthew? What did He say when in those exact circumstances?

Luckily that same book of Matthew captured Jesus' words in Matthew 23:34…

"Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do."

That's just Jesus…

But that's just Jesus. Of course He would do that…I mean…He's Jesus!!! God doesn't expect us to be like that…instead He gives us those imprecatory examples. As we are getting stoned to death we instead have every right to say, "Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!"

Our Lord doesn't expect us to be so gracious in time of persecution…

But wait, the Bible also records a fellow human being killed not too long after Jesus gave his life. After a rather thorough history lesson, Stephen did get stoned to death. I'm sure he didn't have kind words for his executioners. Let's take a look at Acts 7:54-60:

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Hmmm…now this is getting complicated. We don't have the "I'm not the perfect sinless Son of God" excuse anymore.

And back in Matthew 5 if I read just a few verses later I would have reached, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:48).

God really does expect us to be perfect, doesn't He? His Son told us to love our enemies…and then showed love to His. After that the first disciple to be killed (if have that right) also shows his love for his enemies…as he is being killed in a way that had to be about as painful as it comes…

Additionally, earlier we heard the most prolific New Testament writer tell us not to return evil for evil…and perhaps you remember Peter's words from last week's sermon:

Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing (1 Peter 3:9).

We don't count Scriptures, we weigh them.

But then why?

  • Our Father does expect us to be perfect.
  • Jesus does expect us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.
  • The Holy Spirit, through Peter and Paul, does expect us not to return evil for evil. On the contrary, we are to bless.

But then why the "heap coals" language in Romans and all the imprecatory scriptures?

First, I'll admit that I didn't find a convincing explanation of "heap coals." Paul got it from Proverbs 25:22…and being such a student of the Bible it makes sense it would work into his arguments. But when Proverbs 25:21-22 says:

21 If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat,

and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink,

22 for you will heap burning coals on his head,

and the LORD will reward you.

When Proverbs 25:21-22 says that…how are we to take it? Paul even seems to connect it to God's wrath and vengeance when he quotes it in Romans.

  • When you weight scriptures, do you give more weight to one that nobody can really explain or to one that was lived out by the Person who uttered it and His early disciples?
  • When you weigh scriptures, do you give more weight to the clear part of Paul's words, or to the part that makes you scratch your head?
  • When you weight scriptures, do you give more weight to Peter's plain statement, or to a verse in Proverbs whose meaning probably has been somewhat lost as the ancient culture it was generated disappeared?

Can you imagine a thousand years from now explaining "there is more than one way to skin a cat"? I can see it now, "Alan taught we should skin cats." Yet, all I mean by that idiom is that there are alternatives…


When I first started preaching for this church I started with a series called "What Did Jesus Do."

We saw exactly what Jesus did.

And…in His words we also may have glimpsed a big part of the why He did it.

Remember his words? "Father forgive them, for they…"


"For they know not what they do."

Now, I believe that those 19 men are suffering the fate of the wicked.

But…think about it…wouldn't it be fair to say they really didn't know what they were doing? That, like Eve, they were deceived?

That, like us, they suffered from the same disease?

That, but for the grace of God and work of Jesus, we would suffer the same end as they are?

If you have cancer and run into someone else with cancer, do you have disdain or concern for them?

Then, why do we have a habit of having disdain for the ones who suffer from the rampant disease of sin instead of having concern for them?

God gets no pleasure from the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11)…neither should we.

Some of Psalms can be taken as direct advice on how to behave. Some of it is best understood as an example of being totally honest with God.

If you lost someone on 9/11 and you hope they burn in hell for all eternity, tell God that. He knows anyway…and the first step to healing is not being in denial.

But after the emotion calms…keep your eyes upon Jesus and follow His example.

And be glad that He died on the cross so that we don't get what we deserve…that He prayed for those who persecuted Him…that He loved His enemies.

Otherwise we would be joining 19 jihadists in the afterlife.

Instead, we will be joining the One who gave us those really hard commands in Matthew 5.

And yes, it'll be far better than 72 virgins 🙂

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Alan is an ordinary guy, living in a small, high plains Colorado town...and humbled to be a minister of God...

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