Ezekiel 20 COMMENTARY (Pulpit)

Ezekiel 20
Pulpit Commentary
And it came to pass in the seventh year, in the fifth month, the tenth day of the month, that certain of the elders of Israel came to inquire of the LORD, and sat before me.
Verse 1. - A new date is given, and includes what follows to Ezekiel 23:49. The last note of time was in Ezekiel 8:1, and eleven months and five days had passed, during which the prophecies of the intervening chapters had been written or spoken. We may note further that it was two years one month and five days after the prophet's call to his work (ch. 1.), and two years and five months before the Chaldeans besieged Jerusalem (Ezekiel 24:1). The immediate occasion here, as in Ezekiel 8:1, was that some of the elders of Israel bad come to the prophet to inquire what message of the Lord he had to give them in the present crisis. Whether any stress is to be laid on the fact that here the elders are said to be "of Israel," and in Ezekiel 8:1 "of Judah," is doubtful (see note on Ezekiel 14:1). Ezekiel seems to use the two words as interchangeable. Here, however, it is stated more definitely that they came to inquire, probably in the hope that he would tell them, as other prophets were doing, that the time of their deliverance, and of that of Jerusalem, was at hand. Passing into the prophetic state, Ezekiel delivers the discourse that follows.
Then came the word of the LORD unto me, saying,
Son of man, speak unto the elders of Israel, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Are ye come to inquire of me? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I will not be inquired of by you.
Verse 3. - As I live, saith the Lord God, etc. The inquirers are answered, but not as they expected. Instead of hearing of the "times and seasons" of the events that were in the near future, the prophet at once enters on his stern work as a preacher. The general principle that determines the refusal to answer has been given in Ezekiel 14:3.
Wilt thou judge them, son of man, wilt thou judge them? cause them to know the abominations of their fathers:
Verse 4 - Wilt thou judge them, etc.? The doubled question has the force of a strong imperative. The prophet is directed, as it were, to assume the office of a judge, and as such to press home upon his hearers, and through them upon others, their own sins and those of their fathers. He is led, in doing so, to yet another survey of the nation's history; not now, as in Ezekiel 16, in figurative language, but directly.
And say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; In the day when I chose Israel, and lifted up mine hand unto the seed of the house of Jacob, and made myself known unto them in the land of Egypt, when I lifted up mine hand unto them, saying, I am the LORD your God;
Verses 5, 6. - In the day that I lifted up mine hand. The attitude was that of one who takes an oath (Exodus 6:8), and implies the confirmation of the covenant made with Abraham. The land flowing with milk and honey appears first in Exodus 3:8, and became proverbial. The glory of all lands is peculiar to Ezekiel. Isaiah (Isaiah 13:19) applies the word to Babylon.
In the day that I lifted up mine hand unto them, to bring them forth of the land of Egypt into a land that I had espied for them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands:
Then said I unto them, Cast ye away every man the abominations of his eyes, and defile not yourselves with the idols of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
Verses 7-10. - No special mention of the idols of Egypt occurs in the Pentateuch, but it lies, in the nature of the case, that this was the form of idolatry implied in the second commandment, and the history of the "golden calf" (Exodus 32:4) shows that they had caught the infection of the Mnevis or Apis worship while they sojourned in Egypt. Here apparently the prophet speaks of that sojourn prior to the mission of Moses. In bold anthropomorphic speech he represents Jehovah as half purposing to make an end of the people there and then, and afterwards repenting. He wrought for his Name's sake, that the deliverance of the Exodus might manifest his righteousness and might, the attributes specially implied in that Name, to Egypt and the surrounding nations. They should not have it in their power to say that he had abandoned the people whom he had chosen.
But they rebelled against me, and would not hearken unto me: they did not every man cast away the abominations of their eyes, neither did they forsake the idols of Egypt: then I said, I will pour out my fury upon them, to accomplish my anger against them in the midst of the land of Egypt.
But I wrought for my name's sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen, among whom they were, in whose sight I made myself known unto them, in bringing them forth out of the land of Egypt.
Wherefore I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness.
And I gave them my statutes, and shewed them my judgments, which if a man do, he shall even live in them.
Verse 11. - I gave them my statutes, etc. Ezekiel recognizes, almost in the very language of Deuteronomy 30:16-20, as fully as the writers of Psalm 19. and 119. recognized, the excellence of the Law. A man who kept that Law in its fulness would have life in its fullest and highest sense. He was beginning, however, to recognize, as Jeremiah had (lone (Jeremiah 31:31), the powerlessness of the Law to give that life without the aid of something higher. The "new covenant" was already dawning on the mind of the scholar as on that of the master.
Moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them.
Verse 12. - I gave them my sabbaths, etc. As in Exodus 31:12-17, the sabbath is treated as the central sign (we might almost say sacrament) of the Jewish Church, not only as a mark differencing them from other nations, but as between Jehovah and them, a witness of their ideal relation to each other, a means of making that ideal relation a reality.
But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness: they walked not in my statutes, and they despised my judgments, which if a man do, he shall even live in them; and my sabbaths they greatly polluted: then I said, I would pour out my fury upon them in the wilderness, to consume them.
Verse 13. - It is hardly necessary to count up the several instances of rebellion, from the sin of the golden calf onward. Of direct violation of the sabbath we have but two recorded instances (Exodus 16:27; Numbers 15:32); but the prophet looked below the surface, and would count a mere formal observance, that did not sanctify the sabbath, as a pollution of the holy day. (For parallel teaching in the prophets, see Isaiah 56:2-4; Isaiah 58:13; Jeremiah 17:21-27; and later on in the history, probably as the result of their teaching, Nehemiah 10:31-33; Nehemiah 13:15-22.) Then I said. The history of Numbers 14:26 and Numbers 26:65 was probably in Ezekiel's thoughts.
But I wrought for my name's sake, that it should not be polluted before the heathen, in whose sight I brought them out.
Yet also I lifted up my hand unto them in the wilderness, that I would not bring them into the land which I had given them, flowing with milk and honey, which is the glory of all lands;
Because they despised my judgments, and walked not in my statutes, but polluted my sabbaths: for their heart went after their idols.
Verse 16. - Their heart went after their idols. The words may point generally to the fact that the idolatrous tendencies of the people, though suppressed, were not really eradicated. The history of Baal-peor (Numbers 25:3-9) shows how ready they were to pass into act, and Amos 5:25, 26 implies a tradition of other like acts during the whole period of the wanderings in the wilderness.
Nevertheless mine eye spared them from destroying them, neither did I make an end of them in the wilderness.
But I said unto their children in the wilderness, Walk ye not in the statutes of your fathers, neither observe their judgments, nor defile yourselves with their idols:
Verse 18. - I said unto their children, etc. The words can refer to nothing but the great utterance of the Book of Deuteronomy as addressed to the children of those who had perished in the wilderness. That utterance also, it is implied, as indeed the Baal-peor history at the close of the forty years showed, fell on deaf ears. Then also there was, once again, in the inevitable anthropomorphic language, a change of purpose, from that of a rigorous judgment to the mercy which prevailed against it.
I am the LORD your God; walk in my statutes, and keep my judgments, and do them;
And hallow my sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between me and you, that ye may know that I am the LORD your God.
Notwithstanding the children rebelled against me: they walked not in my statutes, neither kept my judgments to do them, which if a man do, he shall even live in them; they polluted my sabbaths: then I said, I would pour out my fury upon them, to accomplish my anger against them in the wilderness.
Nevertheless I withdrew mine hand, and wrought for my name's sake, that it should not be polluted in the sight of the heathen, in whose sight I brought them forth.
I lifted up mine hand unto them also in the wilderness, that I would scatter them among the heathen, and disperse them through the countries;
Verse 23. - That I would scatter them among the heathen. The words seem to refer to the generation that had grown up in the wilderness, and, so taken, do not correspond with the history of the conquest of Canaan. What Ezekiel contemplates, however, as the resolve of Jehovah, is the commutation of the sentence of destruction for that of the dispersion of the people, leaving the time and manner of that dispersion to be determined by his own will. Possibly even in the time of the judges, with its many conquests and long periods of oppression, there were instances of such dispersion, and these, with others that would naturally accompany an invasion like that of Shishak (2 Chronicles 12:2-9), not to speak of frequent attacks from Moabites, Ammonites, Philistines, Edomites, and Syrians, may have seemed to the prophet the working out, step by step, of the dispersion which culminated in the deportation of the ten tribes by Shalmaneser, and of Judah and Benjamin by Nebuchadnezzar. Traces of such dispersions before Ezekiel's time meet us in Psalm 78:59-64; Isaiah 11:11, 12; Zephaniah 3:10, 20.
Because they had not executed my judgments, but had despised my statutes, and had polluted my sabbaths, and their eyes were after their fathers' idols.
Wherefore I gave them also statutes that were not good, and judgments whereby they should not live;
Verse 25. - I gave them also statutes that were not good, etc. The words have sometimes been understood as though Ezekiel applied these terms to the Law itself, either as speaking of what St. Paul calls its "weak and beggarly elements" (Galatians 4:9), or as unable to work out the righteousness which it commanded (Romans 3:20), and the language of Hebrews 7:19 and Hebrews 10:1 has been urged in support of this view. One who has studied Ezekiel with any care will not need many words to show that such a conclusion was not in his thoughts at all. For him the Law was "holy and just and good," and its statutes such that a man who should keep them should even live in them (vers. 13, 21). He is speaking of the time that followed on the second publication of that Law, and what he Says is that the people who rebelled against it were left, as it were, to a law of another kind. The baser, darker forms of idolatry are described by him, with a grave irony, as statutes and judgments of another kind, working, not life, but death. Sin became, by God's appointment, the punishment of sin, that it might be manifest as exceeding sinful. So Stephen says of Israel that "God turned, and gave them up to worship the host of heaven" (Acts 7:42). So St. Paul paints the corruptions of the heathen world as the result of God's giving them up to "vile affections" (Romans 1:24, 25). So in God's future dealings with an apostate form of Christianity, the same apostle declares that "God shall send them strong delusions that they should believe a lie" (2 Thessalonians 2:11). Psalm 81:12 may have been in Ezekiel's thoughts as asserting the same general law.
And I polluted them in their own gifts, in that they caused to pass through the fire all that openeth the womb, that I might make them desolate, to the end that they might know that I am the LORD.
Verse 26. - I polluted them through their own gifts. The noun includes all forms of blessing bestowed on Israel - its corn and wine and oil (see Ezekiel 16:19, 20), even its sons and daughters, the fruit of the womb, as well as the increase of the earth. (For the prevalence of Moloch worship, and for the phrase, "pass through," see notes on Ezekiel 16:21.) The sins were to bring desolation as their punishment, and then men would learn to know Jehovah as indeed he is.
Therefore, son of man, speak unto the house of Israel, and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Yet in this your fathers have blasphemed me, in that they have committed a trespass against me.
For when I had brought them into the land, for the which I lifted up mine hand to give it to them, then they saw every high hill, and all the thick trees, and they offered there their sacrifices, and there they presented the provocation of their offering: there also they made their sweet savour, and poured out there their drink offerings.
Verse 28. - It was a special aggravation of the sin that it was committed in the very land into which they had been brought by the oath (the "hand lifted up") of Jehovah, that it might be a holy land, a witness of the Divine righteousness to the nations round about. The forms of worship include that of the high places, and the thick trees (Isaiah 57:5; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:6) width witnessed the cultus of the Asherah or of Ashtaroth.
Then I said unto them, What is the high place whereunto ye go? And the name thereof is called Bamah unto this day.
Verse 29. - What is the high place, etc.? Bamah, in the plural Bamoth, was the Hebrew for "high place." At first it was applied to the hill on which some local sanctuary stood (1 Samuel 9:12; 1 Kings 3:4), but was gradually extended, after the building of the temple as the one appointed sanctuary, to other places which were looked upon as sacred, and which became the scenes of an idolatrous and forbidden worship. Ezekiel emphasizes his scorn by a conjectural derivation of the word, as if derived from the two words ba ("go") and mah ("whither"); or, perhaps, What comes? (comp. Exodus 16:15 for a parallel derivation of the word marones). Taking the words in their ordinary sense, they seem to express only a slight degree of contempt. "What, then, is the place to which you go?" - what is the "whither" to which it leads? But I incline (with Ewald and Smend) to see in the word "go into" the meaning which it has in Genesis 16:2 and Genesis 19:31, and elsewhere, as a euphemism for sexual union. So later the word "Bamah" becomes a witness that those who worship in the high place go there (as in ver. 30) to commit whoredom literally and spiritually. Its name showed that it was what I have called "a chapel of prostitution" (ch. 16:24, 25).
Wherefore say unto the house of Israel, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Are ye polluted after the manner of your fathers? and commit ye whoredom after their abominations?
Verse 30. - Say ye unto the house of Israel, etc. The words are addressed primarily to the elders who had come to consult the prophet (ver. 1), but through them to all their contemporaries and fellow countrymen. They still in heart and even in deed (comp. Isaiah 57:4-6, 11, and Isaiah 65:3, as showing the habits of the exiles) clung to the old idolatries. The question for them was whether they would continue to walk in the ways of their fathers. If so, it was true of them, as of the elders, that the Lent to whom they came would not be inquired of by them.
For when ye offer your gifts, when ye make your sons to pass through the fire, ye pollute yourselves with all your idols, even unto this day: and shall I be inquired of by you, O house of Israel? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I will not be inquired of by you.
And that which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone.
Verse 32. - That which cometh into your mind, etc. The prophet reads tide secret thoughts of the inquirers. If the temple were destroyed, they thought, then the one restraint on the idolatries they loved would be removed. They would be no longer a separate people, and would be free to adopt the cultus of the heathen among whom they lived. If that was not Jehovah's purpose for them, then there must be no destruction of the temple, no dispersion among the nations. They come to Ezekiel to know which of the two alternatives he, as the prophet of Jehovah, has in store, and his answer is that he is bound to nether. They could not abdicate their high position, and would remain under the burden of its responsibilities. Scattered though they might be among the heathen, yet even there the "mighty hand and the stretched-out arm" (we note the phrases as from Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 5:15) would hunt them down, and punish them for their iniquities.
As I live, saith the Lord GOD, surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with fury poured out, will I rule over you:
And I will bring you out from the people, and will gather you out of the countries wherein ye are scattered, with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with fury poured out.
Verses 34, 35. - The prophet's words seem to look beyond the horizon of any fulfilment as yet seen in history, of which the return of the exiles under Zerubbabel was but the pledge and earnest. He contemplates not a return straight from Babylon to Jerusalem, but a gathering from all the countries in which they had been scattered (Isaiah 11:11). When gathered, the whole nation is to be brought into the wilderness of the peoples, bordered by many nations. This may probably point to the great Syro-Arabian desert lying between Babylon and Palestine. This was to be to them what the wilderness of Sinai had been in the time of the Exodus. There Jehovah would plead with them face to face, in the first instance as an accuser. (For face to face, as expressing the direct revelation of Jehovah, see Exodus 33:11; Deuteronomy 5:4; Deuteronomy 34:10, and elsewhere.)
And I will bring you into the wilderness of the people, and there will I plead with you face to face.
Like as I pleaded with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I plead with you, saith the Lord GOD.
And I will cause you to pass under the rod, and I will bring you into the bond of the covenant:
Verse 37. - I will cause you to pass under the rod. The "rod" (same word as in Psalm 23:4) is primarily that of chastisement, but it is also that of the shepherd who gathers in his flock (Ezekiel 34:11; Leviticus 27:32; Micah 7:14). Into the bond of the covenant. The word for "bond" (only found here in the Old Testament) is probably cognate with that for "fetter" or "bond" (Isaiah 52:2; Jeremiah 5:5; Jeremiah 27:2). The chastisement was, for those who accepted it, to do its work by restoring the blessings of the covenant which apostasy had forfeited.
And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against me: I will bring them forth out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel: and ye shall know that I am the LORD.
Verse 38. - The thought of the shepherd suggests, as in Matthew 25:33, the separation of the sheep from the goats. The land of the restored Israel was to be a land of righteousness, and the rebels were not to enter into it. Was Ezekiel thinking of those who were thus to die in the "wilderness of the peoples" as a counterpart of those who perished in the forty years of the wandering, and did not enter Canaan? Ver. 36 seems to imply that he was looking for a repetition of that history. The solemn fast kept by Ezra by the river of Ahava (Ezra 8:21-22) may be noted as corresponding, on a small scale, to Ezekiel's expectations.
As for you, O house of Israel, thus saith the Lord GOD; Go ye, serve ye every one his idols, and hereafter also, if ye will not hearken unto me: but pollute ye my holy name no more with your gifts, and with your idols.
Verse 39. - Go ye, serve every man his idols, etc. The command comes as with a grave irony. "Be at least consistent. Sin on, if it is your will to sin; but do not make the sin worse by the hypocrisy of an unreal worship, and mix up the name of Jehovah with the ritual of Moloch" (comp. Joshua 24:19, 20). The margin of the Revised Version, with not a few critics (Keil), gives, "but hereafter surely ye shall hearken unto me" ("if not" equivalent to "ye shall," as in the familiar idiom of Psalm 95:11, where "if" is equivalent to "shall not"). So taken, the verse looks forward to what follows.
For in mine holy mountain, in the mountain of the height of Israel, saith the Lord GOD, there shall all the house of Israel, all of them in the land, serve me: there will I accept them, and there will I require your offerings, and the firstfruits of your oblations, with all your holy things.
Verse 40. - From the earlier stage of the restoration the prophet passes on to its completion. The people have come to the mountain of the height of Israel (Micah 4:1, 2; Isaiah 2:2, 3). Ezekiel sees an Israel that shall at last be worthy of its name, the worship of false gods rooted out forever. The all of them points to the breaking down of the old division between Israel and Judah (Isaiah 11:13). Jehovah would accept the "heave offering" (same word as in Exodus 24:27; Leviticus 7:14, et al.) and other oblations. The fact that Israel itself is said to be the "sweet savour" (Revised Version) which Jehovah accepts (comp. 2 Corinthians 2:15; Ephesians 5:2; Philippians 4:18) suggests a like spiritual interpretation of the other offerings, though the literal meaning was probably dominant in the prophet's own thoughts. The nearest approach to a parallelism in a later age is that presented by Romans 9-11; but it is noticeable how there St. Paul avoids any words that imply the perpetuation of the temple and its ritual, and confines himself to the spiritual restoration of his brethren according to the flesh. It was given to him to see, what the prophets did not see, that that perpetuation would frustrate the purpose of the restoration; that the temple and its ritual took their places among the things that "were decaying and waxing old," and were ready to vanish away (Hebrews 8:13).
I will accept you with your sweet savour, when I bring you out from the people, and gather you out of the countries wherein ye have been scattered; and I will be sanctified in you before the heathen.
Verse 41. - I will be sanctified in you, etc. God is sanctified when he is manifested and recognized as holy (Leviticus 10:3; Numbers 20:13). That recognition would be the consequence of the restoration of Israel, for then it would be seen, even by the heathen, that the God of Israel had been holy and just and true in his judgments, and that he seeks to make men partakers of his holiness.
And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall bring you into the land of Israel, into the country for the which I lifted up mine hand to give it to your fathers.
And there shall ye remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have been defiled; and ye shall lothe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed.
Verse 43. - And there shall ye remember, etc. The words stretch far and wide, and throw light on many of the problems that connect themselves with the conversion of the sinner and the eschatology of the Divine government. The whole evil past is still remembered after repentance and forgiveness. There is no water of Lethe, such as the Greeks fabled, such as Dante dreamt of as the condition of entering Paradise ('Purg.,' 31:94-105). The self-loathing and humility which grow out of that memory, the acceptance of all the punishment of the past as less than had been deserved, - these are the conditions and safeguards of the new blessedness. Ezekiel teaches us, i.e., that it is possible to conceive of an eternal punishment, the punishment of memory, shame, self-loathing, as compatible with eternal life. So (in ver. 44) the prophet ends what is perhaps, the profoundest and the noblest of his discourses, his "vindication of the ways of God to man."
And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have wrought with you for my name's sake, not according to your wicked ways, nor according to your corrupt doings, O ye house of Israel, saith the Lord GOD.
Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying,
Verse 45. - In the Hebrew the verses that follow form the opening of the next chapter. The Authorized Version follows the LXX., the Vulgate, and Luther. The section has clearly no connection with what has preceded, and, though fragmentary in its character, seems by the words, "set thy face," to connect itself with Ezekiel 21:2, and to lead up to it. The words of ver. 45 imply, as always, an interval of silence and repose.
Son of man, set thy face toward the south, and drop thy word toward the south, and prophesy against the forest of the south field;
Verse 46. - Drop thy word. The verb is used specially of prophetic utterances (Ezekiel 21:2; Amos 7:6; Micah 2:6, 11), and stands, therefore, in the Hebrew without an object. Toward the south. Three distinct words are used in the Hebrew for the thrice-repeated "south" of the Authorized Version.

(1) One which primarily means "the region on the right hand," sc. as a man looks to the east. which Ezekiel also uses in Ezekiel 47:19; Ezekiel 48:28);

(2) the "shining land," used repeatedly in Ezekiel 40, 42. (Deuteronomy 33:23; Job 37:17; Ecclesiastes 1:6; Ecclesiastes 11:3); and

(3) the Negeb, the "dry" or "parched" land, the South (always in Revised Version with a capital letter), of Joshua 15:21, and the historical books generally, the region lying to the south of Judah. The use of the three words where one might have sacrificed is, perhaps, characteristic of Ezekiel's affluence of diction. The LXX. treats all three as proper names, and transliterates them as Thaiman, Darom, and N'ageb. Against this region and its inhabitants (they, of course, are the "trees") Ezekiel is directed to utter his words of judgment. The parenthesis in the last sentence gives the key to the prophet's cypher writing. From Ezekiel's standpoint on the Chebar, the whole of Judah is as the forest of the south. The "green tree," as in Psalm 1:1, 2, is the man who is relatively righteous; the "dry tree" is the sinner whose true life is withered; the "fire" the devastation wrought by the Chaldean invaders, as executing the Divine judgment. In our Lord's words in Luke 23:31 we may probably find an echo of Ezekiel's imagery.
And say to the forest of the south, Hear the word of the LORD; Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I will kindle a fire in thee, and it shall devour every green tree in thee, and every dry tree: the flaming flame shall not be quenched, and all faces from the south to the north shall be burned therein.
Verse 47. - All faces from the south to the north, etc. The phrase seems, at first, to pass from the figure to the reality. Possibly, however, face may stand for "the outward appearance," the leaves and branches, of the trees. "From the south (Negeb) to the north" takes the place of the older "from Dan to Beersheba" (Judges 20:1; 1 Samuel 3:20). Of that "fire" of judgment, it is said, as in our Lord's use of a like imagery, that it shall not be quenched (Mark 9:43). It shall do its dread work till that work is accomplished.
And all flesh shall see that I the LORD have kindled it: it shall not be quenched.
Then said I, Ah Lord GOD! they say of me, Doth he not speak parables?
Verse 49. - Doth he not speak parables? We can scarcely wonder that Ezekiel's enigmatic words here, as in ch. 15, 16, and 17, should have called forth some such expression from his hearers; but he obviously records the whisper which he thus heard, in a tone of sorrow and indignation. It was to him a proof, as a like question was to the Christ (Matthew 15:16; Matthew 16:9; Mark 8:21) proof that those hearers were yet without understanding. The question was, for those who asked it, an excuse for hardening their hearts against remonstrances which needed no explanation. The indignation was followed by another interval of silence, during which he brooded over their stubbornness, and at last, in Ezekiel 21:1, the word of the Lord comes to him, and he speaks "no more in proverbs," but interprets the latest parable even in its details.

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