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2 Samuel 19; 2 Corinthians 12; Ezekiel 26; Psalms 74

Sep 22, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 19; 2 Corinthians 12; Ezekiel 26; Psalms 74

IT IS APPROPRIATE TO REFLECT ON Psalm 74 at this stage of our reading of the major prophets. It sounds as if it was written at a time of national disaster, perhaps the devastation of 587 B.C. (compare Pss. 79, 137; Lam. 2:5-9). The worst blow of all is that all the prophets are silent (Ps. 74:9). Then suddenly in the midst of the gloom and havoc is a breath of praise (Ps. 74:12-17), before the darkness descends again (Ps. 74:18-23). The interruption is dramatic, and reinforced by a sudden switch from the first person plural (“we,” “us”) to the first person singular: “But you, O God, are my king from of old” (Ps. 74:12). Noteworthy features include:

(1) The anguish of this chapter emerges out of faith, not skepticism, still less cynicism. These people know God, but cannot see what he is doing. They are not so much protesting his punishment of them as its duration: they act as if they know the punishment is deserved, but is it open-ended? Is there no relief? “Why have you rejected us forever, O God?” (Ps. 74:1). “Turn your steps toward these everlasting ruins” (Ps. 74:3). “How long will the enemy mock you, O God? Will the foe revile your name forever?” (Ps. 74:10).

(2) There is a powerful emphasis on God’s “remembering”—or, more precisely put, on appealing to God to remember. It is not as if the psalmist thinks something may have slipped God’s mind, and that he must be reminded of a few basics which, under the press of ruling the universe, he may have accidentally overlooked. The appeal to God to remember is explicit in Psalm 74:2, 18, 22 and implicit often—e.g., “Have regard for your covenant” (Ps. 74:20). These passages provide some insight into what this “remembering” means: it is an appeal to God to act in the light of his ancient covenantal association with his people, the people he “purchased of old” (Ps. 74:2), the tribe of his inheritance that he himself redeemed (Ps. 74:2). It is a plea that, in the midst of wrath, he would “remember” mercy.

(3) Verses 4-8 sound as if they arise from an eyewitness view of the temple being destroyed, from a memory indelibly etched with sorrow. This was the place, the psalmist tells God, “where you met with us” (Ps. 74:4). The following verses are nauseous with grief.

(4) Now, perhaps, we are better placed to reflect on the role of verses 12-17 in the psalm. Precisely when there seems little hope, it is most important for individual believers to recall the power of God both in creation (Ps. 74:16-17) and in redemption (Ps. 74:13-15). How should such a stance work out in our lives?

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2 Samuel 18; 2 Corinthians 11; Ezekiel 25; Psalm 73

Sep 21, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 18; 2 Corinthians 11; Ezekiel 25; Psalm 73

EZEKIEL 25-32 PRESERVES Ezekiel’s oracles against the nations. If Yahweh is the God of the whole earth, it is not surprising if he has things to say to individual nations other than Israel, quite apart from what he says to all nations without distinction. Certainly there is ample evidence that God holds all nations responsible for the sins they commit on the grand scale—he may not hold them responsible for the details of the Law of Moses, but he is certainly ready to impose judgment where there is arrogance, cruelty, aggression, covenant breaking, and rapacity. Always that proverb is true: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people” (Prov. 14:34).

Four more preliminary observations will orient us to these chapters. (a) The number of nations treated is seven: Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt. The same number of nations appears in Amos. These oracles may have been uttered over an extended span of Ezekiel’s ministry, but their gathering in this way into seven, and only seven, suggests the number itself is symbolic: God speaks to all the nations. (b) Intriguingly, Babylon is not included. Probably that is because Babylon is God’s agent in crushing all of these nations. (c) By far the majority of the space is given over to the condemnation of Tyre, at that point a powerful city-state made awesomely wealthy by her trade. After Nebuchadnezzar finished with Jerusalem, the next city he successfully besieged was Tyre—and that siege lasted thirteen years. Undoubtedly the exiles would be interested to hear whether or not a city like Tyre would be held accountable in the same way that Jerusalem was. (d) From a literary point of view, the collection of these oracles into one group, squeezed between chapter 24 and chapter 33 (when the news of Jerusalem’s fall arrives in Babylon), has the effect of heightening the dramatic tension. The first two dozen chapters of Ezekiel colorfully specify what God will do. Then, before unveiling the outcome, this book records that God’s justice will be meted out on all the nations. And then comes the report of what has happened to Jerusalem.

The burden of Ezekiel 25, with its oracles against the first four nations (all of them small states around Judah) contains a salutary lesson. When the mighty Babylonian army finally attacked and destroyed Jerusalem, these nearby states joined in the final assault. Probably in part they were trying to win the favor of Babylon. They were also trying to demolish Judah. Their heartless gloating and arrogant vengeance is an abomination to the Lord, and they will pay for it. Reflect on the implications.

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2 Samuel 17; 2 Corinthians 10; Ezekiel 24; Psalm 72

Sep 20, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 17; 2 Corinthians 10; Ezekiel 24; Psalm 72

THE SECOND PART OF EZEKIEL 24 (Ezek. 24:15-27) is perhaps the most wrenching passage in the entire book. Elsewhere we catch glimpses of Ezekiel the faithful prophet, Ezekiel the stern witness to the truth of God, Ezekiel the man prepared to act out extraordinary symbol-laden parables. Here we read of Ezekiel the husband. Some observations:

(1) A tiny hint of how Ezekiel viewed his wife peeps through the expression that God uses: “the delight of your eyes” (Ezek. 24:16). If Ezekiel was thirty years of age in the fifth year of the exile (Ezek. 1:1-2), then now in the ninth year (Ezek. 24:1) he could not have been more than thirty-four or thirty-five, and probably his wife was no older. Ezekiel is not the only leader of God’s people to suffer devastating personal bereavement. Here he is told in advance that the blow will come (to know in advance is both a blessing and an agony), but he is also commissioned not to grieve: his silence on such an occasion, in a society known for its uninhibited expressions of grief, becomes another symbolic prophetic action.

(2) One can almost feel the massive restraint in the terse words, “in the evening my wife died. The next morning I did as I had been commanded” (Ezek. 24:18, italics added). His silence might have been misunderstood as callousness, but in this case not for long. The people know what sort of man he is, and discern that his utter self-restraint carries a message for them (Ezek. 24:19).

(3) Ezekiel conveys to the people the significance of his silence (Ezek. 24:20-24). The delight of their eyes, their heart’s desire, that on which they still pin their hopes, is the city of Jerusalem. From there, they have thought, God will break out and rescue them. But Jerusalem will be taken away, just as Ezekiel’s wife has been taken away. And when this happens, they are not to weep any more than Ezekiel has mourned the death of his wife.

What does this mean? (a) Some think this is a condemnation of the people: they are so callous and insensitive that they will not bother to mourn the fall of the city. This interpretation is entirely out of tune with the book as a whole. (b) Others think that the tragedy of Jerusalem’s destruction is too deep for any expression of grief to be appropriate. That is possible, but Ezekiel is not silent because of the depth of his loss but because of the command of God. (c) It may be, then, that the people are here commanded not to grieve for the fall of the city, since the judgment is so richly deserved (cf. Ezek. 14:22-23; 1 Sam. 16:1).

Regarding Ezek. 24:25-27, reflect on Ezek. 3:26-27 and Ezek. 33:21-22.

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2 Samuel 16; 2 Corinthians 9; Ezekiel 23; Psalms 70-71

Sep 19, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 16; 2 Corinthians 9; Ezekiel 23; Psalms 70-71

OLD AGE. IT IS NOT SOMETHING our generation likes to talk about very much, at least not in realistic categories. We talk about preparing for retirement, but only with the greatest reluctance do we prepare for infirmity and death. Very few talk about these matters openly and frankly—without, on the one hand, dwelling on them (which shows they are frightened by them), or, on the other hand, suppressing them (which again shows they are frightened by them).

It is much more responsible to learn how to age faithfully, to learn how to die well. This the psalmist wanted. “Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone…. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come” (Ps. 71:9, 18). From his youth, he knew, God had taught him (Ps. 71:17). Now he prays against abandonment in old age.

At one level, the psalmist is primarily asking that God will protect him against outside attacks when he is too old and infirm to resist (Ps. 71:10ff.). This would be a special concern if the author of this particular psalm is David or some other Davidic king. A nearby nation that would not dare attack Israel when David was forty might be emboldened when David was pushing seventy. Though most of us are not kings, it is right and good to ask God for special protection when we grow so elderly and infirm that it is easy for others to take advantage of us.

But David’s vision is more comprehensive than mere protection. He wants so to live in old age that he passes on his witness to the next generation. His aim is not to live comfortably in retirement, but to use his senior years “to declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come.” That is a prayer eminently worth praying. Should not senior saints be praying for grace to pass on what they have learned to a new generation? Perhaps this will be one on one, or in small groups. Perhaps one of them will take under his or her wing some young Christian or abandoned waif. Perhaps some experienced prayer warrior will teach a young Christian leader how to pray. And when there is too little strength even for these things, we shall pray that God’s grace will so operate in our weakness that God will be glorified in us: perhaps we shall teach younger Christians how to persevere under suffering, how to trust in the midst of pain, and how to die in the grace of God.

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2 Samuel 15; 2 Corinthians 8; Ezekiel 22; Psalm 69

Sep 18, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 15; 2 Corinthians 8; Ezekiel 22; Psalm 69

MY CALL TO THE MINISTRY WAS bound up with Ezekiel 22:30-31: “I looked for a man among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found none. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign LORD.”

We should first reflect on this passage in its own textual and historical context. Ezekiel 22 condemns the sins of Jerusalem, this “infamous city, full of turmoil” (Ezek. 22:5). In particular, it focuses on the sins of the leaders—the kings and princes, the priests, the prophets—and shows the ways in which their sins have brought ruin to the people as a whole. In any declining culture much of the declension comes about by leaders and preachers who are self-serving or even rapacious, corrupt, and perhaps vicious, people who are far more interested in retaining power than in serving, people who devote more attention to the “spin” they will give to public answers than to the truthfulness of their answers. Pretty soon the entire fabric of the culture unravels. Corruption is soon tolerated, then expected. Cynicism becomes the order of the day. More and more people do more and more of what they think they can get away with. Integrity becomes so rare it is newsworthy.

That is what happened to the ancient kingdom of David. When God says he sought for a man to build up the wall and stand in the gap before him on behalf of the land so that he would not have to destroy it (Ezek. 22:30), in part he is picking up the imagery already deployed in chapter 13 with respect to the false prophets (see meditation for September 10). But he is also looking for a mediator, a leader like Moses to intercede for the people when they sin (Ex. 32-33), a leader called and equipped to establish righteousness and justice. In Israel at the beginning of the sixth century, he found none. Of course, God had Jeremiah in Jerusalem and Ezekiel among the exiles. But these men were to declare God’s word in declining times. Theirs was not the task of rebuilding the wall, of standing in the gap, of averting the wrath of God.

Superficially, of course, one might say that Nehemiah rebuilt the wall, that Ezra reestablished righteousness. But ultimately, only one Mediator would suffice to stand in the gap.

And my call, more than thirty-three years ago? It was complex. I did not understand this passage very well. But the Spirit of God hit me hard with it, and I knew only that I wanted to stand in the gap before him for his people.

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2 Samuel 14; 2 Corinthians 7; Ezekiel 21; Psalm 68

Sep 17, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 14; 2 Corinthians 7; Ezekiel 21; Psalm 68

PSALM 68 IS ONE OF THE MOST exuberant and boisterous psalms in the Psalter. The opening lines mingle praise and petition that focus on God’s justice and compassion (Ps. 68:1-6). The next verses (Ps. 68:7-18) picture the march of God from Sinai on—probably on to Jerusalem as the place where the tabernacle would be sited. Some have argued that this psalm was composed to be sung for the joyous procession that brought the ark from the house of Obed-Edom to the city of David (2 Sam. 6:12). Probably verses 24-27 lay out the cavalcade of participants in the procession as they come into view, bringing the ark up to Jerusalem (compare the list with 1 Chron. 13:8; 15:16-28). So great is the glory of the Lord reigning in Jerusalem that all the other nations are envisaged as coming to do homage to him. The psalm ends with an explosive fanfare of praise (Ps. 68:32-35): “You are awesome, O God, in your sanctuary; the God of Israel gives power and strength to his people” (Ps. 68:35).

But here I wish to reflect a little further on Psalm 68:11: “The Lord announced the word, and great was the company of those who proclaimed it.” In the context of this psalm, the “word” that the Lord announced is the word of victory. We are to envisage some such scene as 2 Samuel 18:19ff., where a victorious general announces his victory—only here the victory belongs to the Lord, and he is the One who announces the word. The result is as in 1 Samuel 18:6-7: the streets fill with people who are dancing and singing for joy at the victory. When the Lord announced the word, “great was the company of those who proclaimed it”—and what they proclaimed is found in the following verses.

All of the Lord’s victories deserve our praise and our proclamation. That is why the victories envisaged here become a pattern for things to come. When the Lord announces that he will reverse the sanctions imposed on Israel, the good news is to be carried to the ends of the earth: the fleet messengers who convey such good news have beautiful feet (Isa. 52:7; see meditation for June 20). Small wonder, then, that the apostle Paul quotes Isaiah 52:7 with respect to the Gospel (Rom. 10:15): the ultimate end of the exile, the ultimate triumph of God, lies in the Gospel itself. As in the case of the beautiful feet pounding across the mountains to bring the good news, and as in the case of the company of those who proclaimed the word the Lord announced, so also with us (and how much more so!): the only right response to the word of the glorious victory of God in the cross of Jesus Christ is that there be a great company to proclaim it.

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2 Samuel 13; 2 Corinthians 6; Ezekiel 20; Psalms 66-67

Sep 16, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 13; 2 Corinthians 6; Ezekiel 20; Psalms 66-67

AS IN EZEKIEL 8, WHERE THE elders of the exilic community consult with the prophet, so here in Ezekiel 20. As in the earlier instance, God gives Ezekiel something to say to the elders and to the community they represent.

Part of what Ezekiel conveys has been said before. The Sovereign Lord is not too eager to let them consult him when he finds their hearts so distant (Ezek. 20:2-4, 31; cf. chaps. 13-14). There follows a survey of Israel’s history of rebellions. But there are two or three themes in this chapter that have either not been introduced before or have been barely mentioned.

The first is the sheer glory of God: that is one of God’s driving concerns behind the judgments that have fallen and are about to fall. For the sake of his own name God has done what would keep his name “from being profaned in the eyes of the nations in whose sight [he] had brought them out” (Ezek. 20:14; cf. Ezek. 20:22). This theme is further developed in chapters 36 and 39. It is so central in Scripture that we are in danger of overlooking it precisely because of its familiarity. For instance, when Jesus goes to the cross we are accustomed to thinking about God’s love for us in sending so stupendous a gift, or about Jesus’ love for us in that he bore our guilt and punishment in his own body on the tree. Well and good. But the Scriptures also insist that the exaltation of Christ is the product of the Father’s commitment that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father (John 5:23; cf. John 12:23). When Jesus goes to the cross, in part he is acting out of sheer loving obedience to his Father (John 14:31; cf. 15:9-11). God’s awesome plan of redemption is to the praise of his glory (Eph. 1:3-14). This must shape our understanding of God—and thus our prayer lives and our priorities.

That is also why, in the second place, God will not permit his people to be comfortable in their sin. The law was given so that the one who obeys it will “live by” it (20:11, 21, 25; cf. Lev. 18:5)—in this context this means that the one who obeys the Law will prosper. When the people disobey and hunger to be “like the peoples of the world,” God vows that what they have in mind “will never happen” (Ezek. 20:32). Instead, God will protect his name, invoke “the bond of the covenant” (Ezek. 20:37) and pour out his wrath (Ezek. 20:33) so that the people will not “live by” the evil statutes they choose: they will not prosper. Years of God’s forbearance (whether then or now) must ultimately issue either in transformation or in judgment.

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2 Samuel 12; 2 Corinthians 5; Ezekiel 19; Psalms 64-65

Sep 15, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 12; 2 Corinthians 5; Ezekiel 19; Psalms 64-65

THE LAMENT FOR ISRAEL’S PRINCES (Ezek. 19) is at one level pretty straightforward. The lioness in the opening verses of the psalm is the nation as a whole, which gave birth to the kings. Then as now, the lion was the king of beasts, and so it readily served as a symbol for the royal Davidic line (e.g., Gen. 49:9; Mic. 5:8). In Ezekiel 19:10-14 the nation is the vineyard.

The kings Ezekiel has in mind in each section are pretty obvious. Jehoahaz is the first in view. He was captured and taken to Egypt in 609 B.C. (19:4). Jehoiakim is skipped, but the fate of Jehoiachin is made clear in Ezekiel 19:5-9. He was taken to Babylon in 597 (Ezek. 19:9). The fate of Zedekiah is played out in Ezekiel 19:10-14. If this poem was written about the same time as the surrounding chapters (i.e., about 592 or 591), then of course Zedekiah had not yet been destroyed (587). In that case, this section of the poem is predictive. Alternatively, Ezekiel may have completed the lament after the events of those days.

It is striking that the words do not simply portray the overthrow of a minor power by superior force, but the decline of the line and even the decline of the nation. That is part of the picture of the vine in Ezekiel 19:12-14. The nation itself became pathetically weak: “No strong branch is left on it fit for a ruler’s scepter” (Ezek. 19:14). The worst irony is that the fire that consumed the vine’s fruit “spread from one of its main branches”: the allusion is to Zedekiah’s rebellion, which in turn attracted the punitive expedition of the Babylonians. This not only put an end to the Davidic line, but virtually destroyed Israel’s national identity for many years. Within the theology of Ezekiel’s prophecy as a whole, of course, the ultimate cause of Israel’s overthrow was God himself, acting in judgment. But here it is clear that the mediate cause of the nation’s destruction was within itself.

That is neither the first nor the last time that a nation or an institution was destroyed from within. Readers of history may call to mind the Roman Empire, the Russian years under Communism, certain local churches, Christian universities, confessional seminaries, and on and on. They know that human institutions can never be so safely constructed that outcomes are guaranteed. For the heart of the human dilemma is so deeply rooted in personal sin that no structure can finally reform it. The lament for Israel’s princes becomes a lament for the human race, which desperately needs a solution far deeper and more effective than princes, presidents, and structures can ever provide.

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2 Samuel 11; 2 Corinthians 4; Ezekiel 18; Psalms 62-63

Sep 14, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 11; 2 Corinthians 4; Ezekiel 18; Psalms 62-63

THE CASE FOR INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY is perhaps nowhere in the Bible put more strongly than in Ezekiel 18. Yet it is important to understand the passage within its historical and theological context, before attempting to apply it to our own day.

The proverb quoted in verse 2, “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” is also found in Jeremiah 31:29, so it must have circulated both in Jerusalem and among the exiles. Apparently some people were using the saying as a cop-out: there was little they could do with their miserable lot, they were saying, since they were suffering for the sins of their fathers, about which they could do nothing. So instead of pursuing justice and covenant renewal, they were using the proverb as an excuse for moral indifference and tired fatalism.

Yet if it is not turned to such sad ends, the proverb does in fact convey some truth. In various ways, corporate responsibility does cross generational lines. At the giving of the Law, God himself declares that he punishes the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate him—though of course this presupposes that these later generations continue to hate him. The preaching of Isaiah, of Jeremiah, and of Ezekiel himself threatens suffering and exile because of the persistent rebellion and idolatry of both preceding generations and the current crop of Israelites. We ourselves know that sin is often social in its effects: for instance, children from backgrounds of abuse often become abusers, children from arrogant homes often become arrogant themselves, or turn out to be broken and bitter. Sin is rarely entirely private and individualistic. The proverb is not entirely wrong.

When Jeremiah counters this proverb, the alternative he presents is eschatological—that is, the proverb will be overthrown in the last days, with the dawning of the new covenant (see meditation for August 3). Ezekiel’s point is a little different. God is concerned with every individual: “For every living soul belongs to me, the father as well as the son” (Ezek. 18:3). Moreover, whatever social consequences there are to sin, one must never use the proverb as an excuse to cover current sin. Individual responsibility always prevails: “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezek. 18:4). That is the importance of the accounts of behavioral change in this chapter. They are not establishing some simple scheme of works righteousness. Rather, they insist that genuine religion is transforming, and no excuses (hidden perhaps behind a proverb) will suffice. The practical conclusion is found in Ezekiel 18:30-32, which deserves to be memorized.

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2 Samuel 10; 2 Corinthians 3; Ezekiel 17; Psalms 60-61

Sep 13, 2014 | Don Carson

2 Samuel 10; 2 Corinthians 3; Ezekiel 17; Psalms 60-61

A PASTORAL COLLEAGUE OF MINE, Dr. Roy Clements, has preached through a number of psalms under the series title “Songs of Experience.” The title is insightful. Though they are full of doctrine, the psalms are not summaries of doctrine. Many of them are, quite literally, songs of experience. In the Psalms, not a few doctrines become firmly planted in our minds, or their implications are worked out in our lives, precisely because they are heated up in the cauldron of experience. To put the matter another way, the existential value of many doctrines is best seen in the way they are worked out in human lives. So there are psalms of hope, of fear, of doubt, of exuberant joy, of forgiveness, of disappointment, of danger, of despair, of solitude, of contemplation. Many psalms plunge from one mood to another.

One of the psalms before us, Psalm 61, finds David hungering for the security that only God can give. When the psalm opens, David is apparently suffering from exhaustion or depression (Ps. 61:2). Perhaps when he penned these lines he was a long way from home: “From the ends of the earth I call to you” (Ps. 61:2). On the other hand this may simply be a poetic way of expressing how alienated he feels, how far removed from the living God. What he wants, then, is “refuge” (Ps. 61:3), “a strong tower against the foe” (Ps. 61:3)—or, in the line that has been incorporated into many hymns, he begs God, “[L]ead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Ps. 61:2). This conjures up competing images: a rock that will provide shelter to a person beaten down by the sun, a rock that is a craggy redoubt—something far more secure than the man himself can be.

But the following verses show that the security David longs for can never be reduced to physical strength, “a strong tower”—a Maginot Line, a nuclear deterrent, a carrier task force. “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings” (Ps. 61:4). The prayer for security has become immensely personal: David hungers above all for the presence and assurance of God himself. This God protects his own—and his own are those who have been granted the glorious heritage of fearing God’s name (Ps. 61:5). It is almost as if the precise nature of the security God affords gradually dawns on David. Each verse adds an ever-deepening grasp of the true ground of the believer’s security, culminating in this prayer for the king: “May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever; appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him” (Ps. 61:7). No greater security is possible. Small wonder David ends his reflection in unbounded praise (Ps. 61:8)—as must we.

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