Commentary on Jeremiah 27-29 (God’s Instructions to the Exiles)

The Book of Jeremiah was written by the prophet of that name over the course of his ministry, which lasted from approximately 626 – 580 BC. Jeremiah tells us that he dictated his words to his secretary, Baruch. Jeremiah began his ministry during the thirteenth year of King Josiah, and he continued preaching through the reigns of Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, Jehoiachin, and Zedekiah. He lingered in Jerusalem even after Nebuchadnezzar finally destroyed the city in 586 BC.

With regard to Jeremiah’s message, Walt Kaiser Jr. and Duane Garrett write in the NIV Archaeological Study Bible:

Reclusive, analytical and self-critical by nature— he has aptly been called the ‘weeping prophet’— Jeremiah also preached an unpopular message. The people of Judah were in apostasy, God would not protect them and they were obliged to submit to Babylonian demands. Above all, and despite the promise that someday God would give Israel a new covenant (Jer 31), the prophet’s overall message was one of doom and gloom: Jerusalem was soon to fall. Because of his negative stance, Jeremiah was widely despised and continuously in danger (11: 18– 23; 26: 8; 38: 6). On at least one occasion the text of his message was destroyed by the king (36: 20– 24). Even Jeremiah’s scribe, Baruch, was dismayed about his own future (ch. 45). Jeremiah, an old man, lived to see his words fulfilled and Jerusalem destroyed.

As chapter 27 opens, the year is 594 BC and Zedekiah is king in Judah. Zedekiah has invited ambassadors from neighboring nations to Jerusalem to decide whether to rebel against Babylon and King Nebuchadnezzar.

God instructs Jeremiah to make an ox yoke and place it around his neck. An ox yoke was made of wooden bars fastened around the neck by leather straps. It was placed on cattle to steer them for plowing or threshing.

Jeremiah goes to the ambassadors and gives them the very unpopular message that they are to submit to Babylonian rule (symbolized by the ox yoke around Jeremiah’s neck) until God ends the Babylonian empire in the distant future. F. B. Huey, in vol. 16, Jeremiah, Lamentations, The New American Commentary, explains that “the expression ‘his son and his grandson’ (lit. “son’s son”) must not be taken literally. It is an idiom for a long period of time.” If they rebel against Babylon, God Himself will punish them with sword, famine, and pestilence. The Babylonian Empire would eventually be defeated by Persia under Cyrus in 539 BC.

Jeremiah makes clear to King Zedekiah and the foreign envoys that God has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to rule over their nations. If they rebel against Babylon, they are rebelling against God. Jeremiah warns them to ignore false prophets who are promising victory over Babylon if they will rebel. The nations who submit to Babylon will not have their capitals destroyed and their people deported. Unfortunately, we know that Judah did not heed Jeremiah’s words and did attempt to escape Babylonian rule, only to be crushed in 586 BC.

As we skip ahead to chapter 28, Jeremiah is confronted by a prophet of Judah named Hananiah. Hananiah tells the people of Jerusalem that God will break the Babylonians and return all the exiles and all the treasures of the temple in two years. He then takes the yoke from Jeremiah’s neck, breaks it, and repeats that Babylon will fall within two years.

Is Hananiah knowingly lying about his prophecy or does he sincerely believe that God has told him Babylon will fall within two years? No one can say for sure, but Hananiah may have been persuaded to make his bold prediction because of the events unfolding in Babylon at that time. F. B. Huey writes,

The Babylonian Chronicles indicate that Nebuchadnezzar was putting down a revolt in Babylon at that time. His preoccupation with troubles elsewhere may have encouraged Hananiah’s optimistic belief of imminent return of the exiles. It is probable, therefore, that Hananiah thought of himself as a real prophet of God. People must, however, be cautious when they confuse their own desires and ideas (i.e., Hananiah) with those of God.

Jeremiah responds that he hopes Hananiah is right, but that Hananiah is contradicting the many prophets who preceded him. They predicted war, famine, and pestilence because of the sins of Judah. If Hananiah is predicting peace instead, then his word must be tested. If Babylon falls and peace comes within two years, then Hananiah is the true prophet. Jeremiah is invoking the test of Deut 18:20–22.

Some time after this occurs, God speaks to Jeremiah and settles the dispute. God reiterates that He has chosen Nebuchadnezzar to rule over Judah and that Judah and the surrounding nations must submit to Babylonian rule. To fight against Babylon is to fight against God Himself. God tells Jeremiah that Hananiah is a false prophet who is lying to the people. To prove this is true, God decrees that Hananiah will die within the year (death was the penalty for false prophets prescribed in Deut 13:5; 18:20). He dies less than two months later, thus proving that he was a false prophet.

There are not only false prophets in Jerusalem who are predicting the soon return of the exiles, there are false prophets among the exile community in Babylon who are saying the same things. In chapter 29, Jeremiah writes a letter to the exile community to counter the false prophets among them.

Jeremiah’s instructions to the exiles are to settle down and make Babylon their home. They are to build houses and families. They are to pray for the Babylonians and seek their good. They are not to listen to the prophets who are telling them that Babylon will fall and they will return home soon. Huey notes that

this is the only place in the OT where prayer for one’s enemies and for unbelievers is commended (cf. Matt 5:43–48; Rom 12:21; Titus 3:1–2; 1 Pet 2:18). It was practical advice though difficult to put into practice. It has never been easy to pray for one’s enemies. However, it was in their best interest to do so. If Babylon prospered, the exiles would prosper also. Praying for the government has become a Jewish custom.

After 70 years in exile, God will bring the Jews back to the Promised Land. God reassures the exiles that He has not abandoned them, that His plans are to bring them back and give them peace and prosperity. When the exiles seek after God, God will be found by them.

How Can God Be Both Merciful and Wrathful at the Same Time?

Within the Bible, God is described as wrathful over one hundred times. We see God’s wrath mentioned in Ezekiel 8:18 after God shows Ezekiel the idol worship taking place in the temple precincts. In the same Bible, however, God is said to be merciful. How can the same God be both wrathful and merciful? Aren’t these opposites of each other?

Theologian Norman Geisler, in Systematic Theology, Volume Two: God, Creation, explains in very simple and succinct terms how this is possible.

Wrath and mercy are not incompatible, since they are exercised toward different objects; wrath is on the unrepentant, and mercy is on the repentant. As established previously, God is consistently and unchangeably angry with sin and consistently and unchangeably delighted with righteousness.

God acts mercifully toward those who repent of their sins, while God displays His wrath toward those who are unrepentant. There is simply no inconsistency.

There is a further objection about God’s wrath. Some people cite New Testament passages which speak of Jesus Christ taking the wrath of God for sinners. If Jesus took God’s wrath, then nobody should be subjected to God’s wrath any more. Geisler answers this objection:

This objection is based on a misunderstanding of what Christ did on the cross. The salvation of everyone was not applied; it was simply purchased. All persons were made savable, but not all persons were automatically saved. The gift was made possible by the Savior, but it must be received by the sinner (Eph. 2:8–9; cf. John 1:12). In short, the salvation of all sinners from God’s eternal wrath is possible, but only those who accept Christ’s payment for their sins will actually be saved from it.

Commentary on Ezekiel 8-11 (God Leaves the Temple)

The Book of Ezekiel was written by the prophet of that name who was born around the year 623 BC and lived until at least 571 BC. The date of his death is uncertain.

Ezekiel was born into a priestly family and lived in Jerusalem until the year 597 BC. This was the year that King Nebuchadnezzar attacked Judah a second time and carried much of the nobility, including Ezekiel, to Babylon.

Peter C. Craigie, in Ezekiel, The Daily Study Bible Series, writes that

Ezekiel belonged to a community established at a place called Tel Abib, by the ‘River’ Chebar, which was actually an irrigation canal, drawing waters from the River Euphrates near the city of Babylon itself. The exiles built for themselves houses with mud bricks and settled there in a strange environment, not too far from the extraordinary capital city of the Emperor Nebuchadnezzar. It was in his fifth year as an exile in Tel Abib that Ezekiel had a profound religious experience. He was thirty years old at the time; if he had still been living in Jerusalem, it was the age at which he would have assumed the full responsibilities of priesthood. But instead he was called to the task of a prophet, of being a spokesman for God. For more than twenty years, he served as a prophet among the exiles. The last of his prophecies that can be dated with any certainty was given in 571 B.C., when he was in late middle-age.

Ezekiel received the first of a series of 14 visions in 593 BC, seven years before Jerusalem would be completely destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar. His ministry was aimed at the Jewish exile community both before and after the fall of Jerusalem. All forty-eight chapters of his book are arranged chronologically and his visions are dated.

Craigie summarizes the overall message of the Book of Ezekiel:

The Jews of his time were faced with an enormous question; to put it in modern words, had their religion come to an end? Phrased so bluntly, it may sound foolish, especially with our knowledge of later history. Yet it was a real and awesome question at the time. The religion of the Hebrews had been linked intimately, before Ezekiel’s time, to the existence of the state of Israel and the possession of the promised land. And yet those two foundations upon which the faith had been established were crumbling before their very eyes. Had their failure, and that of their ancestors, been so terrible that God had finally given up on his people? In such an age, and to such questions, the message of Ezekiel was particularly powerful. He spoke of doom and judgment, but ultimately his faith and message outstripped the reality of contemporary experience. Ultimately, there was hope. Even the disasters of those decades somehow had a purpose in God’s plan. The events would somehow conspire to declare to the people that God was indeed the Lord. And so the final impression that is left after reading this extraordinary book is one of hope. It is not an unqualified and naive hope, but it is real nevertheless.

Chapters 8-11 contain the second of Ezekiel’s visions while he is living in exile in Babylon. The date is September 17, 592 BC. Recall that 592 BC is after the second deportation of Jerusalem, but before the final deportation and destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC. The exile community is still hoping that God will save Judah and Jerusalem from Babylon, and they are seeking Ezekiel’s word on the matter.

Ezekiel is transported, in a vision, to the temple in Jerusalem by God Himself. God intends to show Ezekiel, and thus the leaders in the exile community, why He will not save Jerusalem. God will show Ezekiel four examples of the idolatrous worship taking place on the grounds of the temple itself.

temple

As seen in the figure above, there were two courts of the temple, the inner and outer. What cannot be seen is that there are gates leading from the outer court to the inner court on the north (top), south (bottom), and east (right) sides of the complex. There was no gate on the west (left) side.

Ezekiel is first transported to the north gate and he sees what is called the “image of jealousy.” It is clear this is an idol of some kind, and many scholars believe it is an Asherah pole. Asherah is the Canaanite goddess of love and was considered to the mistress or consort of El, the highest god in the Canaanite pantheon. This idol is set up right near the northern gate in the temple complex, side by side with the glory of God (the temple symbolizes God’s earthly dwelling).

In verses 7-13, God leads Ezekiel to a secret room that was built on the temple grounds where seventy elders of Israel are worshiping Egyptian gods that are painted on the wall. These are supposed to be the leaders of Israel and they are hiding away in a room to conduct their own form of blasphemous idol worship. They believe that God has forsaken the land and thus cannot see them.

Peter C. Craigie aptly writes:

The elders suffered from the delusion of secrecy. They thought they could act without being seen, and though primarily their secrecy was directed towards their people, at a deeper level it was an attempt to remain secret from God. Yet Ezekiel is standing there, and God is with him, observing the action.

There are no secrets from God. To act as if there were is the height of folly. For human life is conducted on a stage like the interrogation room of a modern police department; the insiders cannot see out, but the observers can see and hear all that goes on inside the room. All speech and behavior should be conducted with an awareness that ultimately there are no secrets from God.

God then moves Ezekiel back to the north gate and there Ezekiel witnesses a group of women worshiping the god Tammuz. Charles H. Dyer explains in The Bible Knowledge Commentary that

‘Tammuz’ is the Hebrew form of the name of the Sumerian god Dumuzi, the deity of spring vegetation. The apparent death of all vegetation in the Middle East during the hot, dry summer months was explained in mythology as caused by Tammuz’s death and descent into the underworld. During that time his followers would weep, mourning his death. In the spring Tammuz would emerge victoriously from the underworld and bring with him the life-giving rains. The worship of Tammuz also involved fertility rites.

The fourth and final example given to Ezekiel involves twenty-five Levitical priests in the inner courtyard facing toward the east and worshiping the sun. Note that facing toward the east means that their backs were toward the temple. They had figuratively and literally turned their backs on God.

Craigie explains the totality of the idol worship witnessed by Ezekiel.

The four scenes with which this great vision begins, taken together, form a comprehensive condemnation of Israel’s worship. All were involved, with no exceptions. The idol of Asherah at the north gate indicated the popular worship of the people. The secret room of sacrilegious murals demonstrated the distinctive failure of the nation’s leaders, the elders. The weeping women illustrated the loss of faith in the Living God. And, in the midst of it all, even the priests were turning backwards in their misdirected attempts at worship. And not only were all the people engaged in this folly; they were without discrimination in their choice of idols. The idol of Asherah represented the religion of Canaan; the secret murals were drawn from the religion of Egypt. The weeping women turned to a god of Babylon, while the priests worshipped the sun, whose cult was practised in almost every nation of the ancient Near East.

After showing Ezekiel the abominations in the temple complex, God says,

Have you seen this, O son of man? Is it too light a thing for the house of Judah to commit the abominations that they commit here, that they should fill the land with violence and provoke me still further to anger? Behold, they put the branch to their nose. Therefore I will act in wrath. My eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. And though they cry in my ears with a loud voice, I will not hear them.

In chapter nine, Ezekiel witnesses the destruction of the people of Jerusalem by God. All who have turned against Him are executed. This vision is a foreshadowing of the Babylonian attack in 586 BC.

Chapters ten and eleven report the most devastating consequence of Judah’s betrayal: God’s glory leaves the temple of Jerusalem. Ezekiel sees God mount what looks like a chariot. The chariot is composed of a throne sitting on a large platform. Underneath the platform are four cherubim and four double-wheels. The cherubim and the wheels move the chariot wherever God wills. See the figure below.

chariot

God summons a man dressed in white linen to come to the cherubim under the chariot and receive burning coals from them. The burning coals are to be scattered around the city of Jerusalem. Lamar Eugene Cooper, in vol. 17, Ezekiel, The New American Commentary, writes,

Some see this as a rite of purification; others see it as an act of judgment. Both ideas are appropriate. Judgment from God is redemptive in its purpose, not purely punitive. His ultimate goal was the restoration of the nation through a purified remnant.

God moves, on the chariot, from the interior of the temple to the eastern gate of the inner courtyard. The eastern gate faces out over the Valley of Kidron. On the other side of the valley is the Mount of Olives. God lingers at the eastern gate, as if He is giving Jerusalem one last chance to repent.

Finally, in chapter 11, verses 22-25, God rises up from the eastern gate and exits the city. His chariot transports Him to the Mount of Olives, where He makes his final departure from the temple and Jerusalem. Cooper writes:

The departure of the glory of God from the Mount of Olives was the final step in the judgment process. The removal of his blessing signaled the end of his longsuffering with a disobedient and rebellious people. God had exhausted every means of soliciting repentance from the people. Therefore he removed the glory that was the sign of his presence so that judgment might run its full course. The absence of the glory signaled the last stage in the process of reprobation of the self-willed people of the nation.

Ezekiel reported everything he saw to the elders in exile. What were they to do with this information? What hope was left? Craigie explains that hope now rested with the exile community. The residents of Jerusalem had been completely rejected by God.

And so it was upon the exiles that the future now depended. Thinking themselves to be useless, they had looked to others in far off Jerusalem to provide a source of hope. But the tables were being turned. If there was hope to be found, it lay within them, not in the empty hands of others far away. The citizens of Jerusalem had already written off the exiles as irrelevant to the future of their city. Indeed, the exiles themselves thought that there was nothing they could do. But now they were learning that the weak of this world were the ones through whom God would work. And such new hope was not without its attendant anxiety, for it involved awesome responsibility.

Yet the message of the prophet to his fellow exiles carried with it a potent promise, to be developed still further later in his ministry. The future now lay with those in exile, yet it was plain for all to see that they did not have in themselves the strength to undertake the task. The enabling power would be provided by God in the gift of a new spirit and a new heart (see further 36:26). The doomed citizens of the city had built by themselves, and their buildings would soon come toppling down. The exiles, in their mission, would have to learn to build in a new way, employing the strength coming from their new and God-given heart and spirit.

Commentary on 2 Kings 24-25 (The Fall of Judah)

At the end of chapter 23, King Josiah is killed by the Egyptian Pharaoh Neco in 609 BC. Shortly thereafter Neco places one of Josiah’s sons, Jehoiakim, on the throne of Judah. Judah has now become a vassal of Egypt and the king heavily taxes his people in order to pay the tribute to Egypt.

Chapters 24-25 of 2 Kings span the last 23 years of the nation of Judah. The account is rapid-fire and introduces numerous people to the reader. In order to help us see more clearly the order of events, I’ve placed a timeline below which is borrowed from Lawrence O. Richards’ The Teacher’s Commentary.

609 BC – Josiah slain in battle at Megiddo; Jehoiakim, son of Josiah, becomes king

605 BC – Babylon defeats Egypt at Carchemish; Nebuchadnezzar becomes king of Babylon; First deportation to Babylon includes Daniel

604 BC – Nebuchadnezzar receives tribute in Palestine

601 BC – Nebuchadnezzar defeated near Egypt

598 BC – Jehoiakim dies; Jehoiachin, son of Jehoiakim, rules from December 9, 598 to March 16, 597; is then deported April 22 to Babylon

597 BC – Nebuchadnezzar chooses Zedekiah, son of Josiah, to become king of Judah; Ezekiel taken to Babylon

588 BC – Babylon lays siege to Jerusalem on January 15

587 BC – Jeremiah imprisoned (Jer. 32:1–2)

586 BC – Zedekiah flees; He is captured and blinded by Nebuchadnezzar; A few months later, Nebuchadnezzar orders Jerusalem sacked and destroyed

In the final 23 years of Judah, there are actually three deportations. The first occurs in 605 BC when Nebuchadnezzar becomes the king of Babylon. He defeats Egypt and thus assumes control of all of Egypt’s vassal states, Judah being one of them. Nebuchadnezzar then marches into Judah and demands loyalty from Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim submits and allows Nebuchadnezzar to take some of the nobility and members of the royal family to Babylon. Daniel is among this first group of exiles.

The second deportation occurs in 597 BC when Nebuchadnezzar again marches on Jerusalem, this time because Jehoiakim is rebelling against Babylonian rule. By the time he arrives, Jehoiakim has already died and his son Jehoiachin is king. Jehoiachin surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar and is taken in captivity to Babylon.

This time around Nebuchadnezzar also takes many of the treasures of the temple and palace. He takes captive virtually all the military officers and 7,000 soldiers, as well as 1,000 craftsmen and artisans. Ten thousand people are taken captive, including Ezekiel.

The third and final deportation occurs in 586 BC after Nebuchadnezzar has again laid siege to Jerusalem. This time Nebuchadnezzar attacks because his puppet, King Zedekiah, has rebelled and joined forces with Egypt. Once Zedekiah is captured and hauled off to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar sees to it that Judah will never again bother him.

Verses 8-17 in chapter 25 of 2 Kings recount the destruction. The Babylonians burn the temple, the palace, and all the major buildings in Jerusalem. The walls of the city are destroyed. Before burning the temple, the Babylonians carry off everything of value. Jerusalem, the city that David established as the capital of the united kingdom of Israel around 1000 BC, is now completely and utterly destroyed, with all but the poorest Israelites marched off to Babylon.

Paul R. House, in vol. 8, 1, 2 Kings, The New American Commentary, writes,

For covenant-minded readers the loss of the temple means much more than the destruction of a significant public building. To them the temple symbolizes God’s presence in the midst of the chosen people, ongoing worship of Yahweh, the possibility of receiving forgiveness by the offering of sacrifice, and the opportunity to gather as a unified nation at festival time. Of course, the temple was rarely used properly, yet as long as it stood, the hope for the ideal existed. Now what will happen to God’s people?

The unthinkable has finally occurred. After centuries of warnings, God has removed Israel from the Promised Land. Is the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of the people a surprise? It shouldn’t be. The Mosaic covenant has been broken by king after king for centuries. The people of Israel and Judah have strayed further and further from loving Yahweh, instead choosing to worship false gods made of metal and wood. Paul House recounts the warnings given to the people of Israel ever since the days of Moses.

This event is the most devastating punishment Moses can use to threaten people who desperately seek a home of their own (Deut 27–28). It is what Israel barely avoids in Judges, what Samuel warns the people about in 1 Samuel 12, and what Solomon fears in 1 Kgs 8:22–61. Isaiah predicts the exile (Isa 39:1–8), as do Jeremiah (Jer 7:1–15), Ezekiel (Ezek 20:1–49), Amos (Amos 2:4–5; 6:1–7), Micah (Mic 3:12), Habakkuk (Hab 1:5–11), and Zephaniah (Zeph 1:4–13). Jeremiah and Ezekiel live during the exile, while Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi live in its aftermath. Clearly, it is one of the defining events in the Old Testament story.

Four biblical writers lived during the last days of Judah: Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. Habakkuk and Jeremiah were both prophesying in and around Jerusalem, while Ezekiel and Daniel began their ministries after they had been exiled to Babylon during the first and second deportations (Daniel in 605 BC and Ezekiel in 597 BC).

Even though the people have been exiled and the land has been lost, God’s spokesmen continue to preach and write to the remnant of Israel. Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel all have important messages to give to the people of God (which we will study in the coming weeks). The destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC is the end of an era, but it is not the end of God’s plan for Israel and the rest of the world.

Why Doesn’t the Author of 2 Kings Mention Manasseh’s Repentance?

In 2 Chronicles 33, the author records the capture of Manasseh by the Assyrians, his subsequent imprisonment, and then his repentance and return to Jerusalem. None of this material is recorded in the parallel account of Manasseh in 2 Kings 21. Why might this be the case and, secondly, is the account in 2 Chronicles historically plausible? Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe tackle the first question in When Critics Ask : A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties:

Apparently the author of 2 Kings did not record the repentance of Manasseh because of the lack of influence it had upon the steady decline of the nation. The Book of 2 Kings concentrates primarily upon the actions of the covenant people of God as a whole. The repentance and reforms of Manasseh did relatively little to turn the nation around from its path to judgment, while his sinful leadership early in his reign did much more damage to the nation. Even in the 2 Chronicles passage we find this statement: ‘Nevertheless the people still sacrificed on the high places, but only to the Lord their God’ (2 Chron. 33:17). Even though the people dedicated their sacrifices to the Lord, they were still committing sin, because sacrifices were to be made at the temple, not upon high places which were originally altars to false gods. Despite the efforts of Manasseh, the people would not totally dedicate themselves to the Lord.

Is the account of Manasseh being taken by the Assyrians plausible historically? J. A. Thompson, in vol. 9, 1, 2 Chronicles, The New American Commentary, attempts to answer this question for us.

A historical question has been raised in regard to Manasseh’s captivity in Babylon, taken there by Assyrian forces, since there is no extrabiblical documentation for these events. This fact is not, of course, a sufficient reason for rejecting their historicity. Assyrian records are by no means sufficiently comprehensive to allow any argument from silence to decide the issue. There is valuable circumstantial evidence which has persuaded a good number of scholars that historical events underlie the Chronicler’s narrative. The Assyrian records mention Manasseh. He is listed among twenty-two kings of Hatti, the seashore, and the islands, who were summoned to Nineveh by Esarhaddon (650–669 B.C.) to bring building materials for a new palace. Asshur- banipal (668–627 B.C.) mentions him among vassal kings who participated in a campaign against Egypt.

In these references Manasseh appears as submissive to the Assyrian king. The question is asked regarding what historical circumstances would have brought about his humiliation and punishment by Assyria. Various proposals have been made. Manasseh quite possibly may have been on the side of Shamash-shum-ukin, who revolted against his brother Asshur-banipal. The inscriptions of both Esarhaddon and Asshur-banipal abound in references to Egypt and the Palestinian states in the time of Manasseh, who reigned for fifty-five years.

One other important Assyrian source is the vassal-treaties of Esarhaddon dated in the year 672 B.C. The crown prince of Assyria, Asshur-banipal, was inducted at a special ceremony where representatives of all the lands under Assyrian control were present. These representatives were sworn not to arouse the anger of the gods and goddesses against him and to serve Ashur as their god. They were bound by fearful oaths to support the crown prince after the death of his father. These treaties are not entirely intact, and the name of Manasseh does not appear. But the interest and activity of both Esarhaddon and Asshur-banipal in the west may well have forced compliance with their demands on Judah. Naturally vassals took opportunity to deviate from the treaty obligations laid upon them and even to rebel. In fact, numerous rebellions are attested in the reigns of Esarhaddon and Asshur-banipal.

By all accounts, the Chronicler’s narrative is historically reliable, but it of course includes a theological wording.

Commentary on 2 Chronicles 33-35 (Manasseh and Josiah)

The reforming king, Hezekiah, was followed by his son, Manasseh, who reigned from 697-642 BC. Chapter 33, verses 1-9, describe Manasseh as one of the worst kings of Judah, if not the worst. His list of sins includes building altars for a host of pagan gods, engaging in sorcery and necromancy, placing idols inside the temple, and sacrificing his own sons as part of divination rituals.

Verse 9 summarizes Manasseh’s reign: “Manasseh led Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem astray, to do more evil than the nations whom the LORD destroyed before the people of Israel.” The Judahites had even outdone the Canaanites whom God drove out of the Promised Land centuries before.

J. A. Thompson, in vol. 9, 1, 2 Chronicles, The New American Commentary, comments on Manasseh’s depravity:

This whole passage is strongly reminiscent of Deut 18:9–13. All in all, the sins of Manasseh detail the depths to which counterfeit religion will take a person. Here was the Davidic king, the heir and keeper of the promises of the covenant with David, worshiping poles and stones and the stars. Worse yet, he was murdering his own sons, one of whom otherwise might have been heir to the throne and the covenant. Paganism, whether in its ancient or modern manifestations, is not only an offense to God but is a degradation to humankind.

To punish Judah, God brings the Assyrians down from the north. Manasseh is captured and led away to captivity with a hook through his nose. While in captivity, Manasseh finally repents of his disastrous leadership and God allows him to return to his kingdom before he dies.

In verses 21-25, we see that Manasseh’s son, Amon, rules over Judah for only two years (642-640 BC). Like his father, he continues to promote worship of foreign gods. He is assassinated by his servants, likely for political reasons. Many scholars believe he was pro-Assyrian and murdered by those who desired to rebel against Assyrian authority.

Chapter 34 opens with the announcement of the reign of King Josiah. He would rule from 640-609 BC (thirty-one years). The Chronicler gives unparalleled praise to Josiah, saying the following: “And he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, and walked in the ways of David his father; and he did not turn aside to the right hand or to the left.” No other king of Judah is given this compliment.

Verses 3-7 record Josiah’s attempts to undo everything that Manasseh had done. Altars are torn down. Idols are destroyed. Josiah even takes his reforms to the lands formerly occupied by Israel, the northern kingdom. His ability to do so is possible because of the weakening of Assyrian power during this period. The Assyrians had bigger problems than trying to retain control of this Jewish province.

Why did Josiah seek after God while his father and grandfather did the opposite? We can’t know for sure, but Thompson offers the following explanation:

The initiative for reform may not have been entirely due to Josiah, for in his boyhood he would have been under the influence and constraint of a regent or regents who might well have been from among the ‘people of the land,’ who no doubt saw the dangers of the religious policies followed by Manasseh and Amon and were anxious to return to a Yahweh-centered religious practice. One persuasive proposal is that the prophets Zephaniah and Jeremiah had an influence on Josiah before the finding of the book of the law in 621 B.C.

Beginning in verse 8, we read that Josiah begins to renovate and repair the temple, which had no doubt been seriously neglected under Manasseh. As the high priest, Hilkiah, is gathering the money donated by people all over Israel and Judah, he discovers the “Book of the Law” inside the temple.

Scholars are divided over what the Book of the Law contains. The most popular view is that it refers to the Book of Deuteronomy, which is primarily the summary and re-statement of the previous four books of the Torah. Other scholars believe that the Book of the Law actually included the entire Torah – all five books. It is truly shocking that the Levites, working in the temple, and the king himself, had lost all copies of the Torah, but that seems to be the case. Some scholars speculate that the Book of the Law was hidden during Hezekiah’s reign due to threat of invasion, or possibly during Manasseh’s reign because of his apostasy.

Hilkiah gives the book to a man named Shaphan, the king’s secretary. Shaphan takes the book to Josiah and starts reading from it. Upon hearing the words from the book, Josiah tears his clothes in mourning and sends his high priest to consult with a prophetess named Huldah.

Huldah prophesies that the people of Judah will be punished by God for their worship of other gods, just as the Book of Deuteronomy warns. Huldah, however, prophesies that Josiah will not live to see the day when Judah is destroyed. Because of Josiah’s humility before God, the kingdom will survive while he is alive.

Upon hearing these words, Josiah gathers the people of Judah to the temple in Jerusalem. He reads aloud from the Book of the Law and he rededicates the nation to the covenant between God and Israel. “And the king stood in his place and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of the covenant that were written in this book.”

In chapter 35, verses 16-19, Josiah celebrates the Passover for the first time in decades. The Chronicler claims that Josiah’s Passover celebration was unlike all previous. “No Passover like it had been kept in Israel since the days of Samuel the prophet. None of the kings of Israel had kept such a Passover as was kept by Josiah, and the priests and the Levites, and all Judah and Israel who were present, and the inhabitants of Jerusalem.”

The nation of Judah would walk in the ways of God for the remainder of Josiah’s reign. Sadly, Josiah is killed during military action with Egypt in the year 609 BC. With his death, God’s patience with Judah would come to an end. The Assyrians had been defeated by a new superpower, the Babylonians. God would now turn Babylonian eyes toward Jerusalem and Judah.

Is Isaiah 52-53 Speaking of National Israel Rather than the Messiah?

Many modern Jews identify the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52-53 as the corporate nation of Israel rather than the individual Messiah. This raises two questions: 1) Has this always been the Jewish view of the passage? and 2) Does this interpretation make sense of the text?

To answer the first question, we turn to biblical scholar Michael Brown. In his book Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Volume 3, Brown surveys the historical positions of Jewish rabbis and scholars.

For the last thousand years, religious Jews have often interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to the people of Israel, but that has by no means been the consensus interpretation, and it is not the interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis. So, for example, the Targum interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah— as a warring, victorious king, even to the point of completely twisting the meaning of key verses — while the Talmud generally interprets the passage with reference to the Messiah, or key individuals (like Moses or Phineas), or the righteous. Note also that Sa‘adiah Gaon, the influential ninth-century Rabbinic leader, interpreted Isaiah 53 with reference to Jeremiah. This means that virtually without exception, the earliest traditional Jewish sources— and therefore the most authoritative Jewish sources— interpret Isaiah 52: 13– 53: 12 with reference to an individual, and in some cases, with reference to the Messiah.

As stated above, this is highly significant. While it is true that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak all interpreted the passage with reference to Israel, other equally prominent leaders, such as Moses ben Nachman (called Nachmanides or the Ramban), felt compelled to follow the weight of ancient tradition and embrace the individual, Messianic interpretation of the Talmudic rabbis (found in the Midrash, despite his belief that the plain sense of the text supported the national interpretation). Noteworthy also is the oft-quoted comment of Rabbi Moshe Alshech, writing in the sixteenth century, ‘Our rabbis with one voice accept and affirm the opinion that the prophet is speaking of the Messiah, and we shall ourselves also adhere to the same view.’ This too is highly significant, since Alshech claims that all his contemporaries agreed with the Messianic reading of the text, despite the fact that Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and Radak had all come out against that reading. Could it be that Rabbi Alshech and his contemporaries came to their conclusions because the text clearly pointed in that direction?

The Messianic interpretation is also found in the Zohar as well as in some later midrashic works. Thus, it is clear that there is substantial Jewish tradition— spanning a period of up to two thousand years— that differs with [the] objection. . . .

All this is especially important when you realize that sections from Isaiah 52:13– 53:12 are quoted several times in the New Testament, and the passage as a whole can arguably be called the clearest prophecy of Jesus in the entire Tanakh. Yet many traditional Jewish commentators and teachers have still interpreted the prophecy as Messianic. How tempting it would have been for the Talmudic rabbis and their successors to interpret this passage with reference to Israel— rather than to the Messiah or any other individual— seeing that it played such an important role in Christian interpretation and polemics. Yet they did not interpret the passage with reference to the nation of Israel in any recorded traditional source for almost one thousand years, nor did they interpret it with reference to national Israel with unanimity thereafter.

Thus it seems clear that the idea of Isaiah 52-53 speaking of national Israel is not the original view of Jewish teachers at all. In fact, the more likely explanation is that prominent Jewish scholars one thousand years ago reacted against the rise of Christianity and reinterpreted these verses to avoid the conclusion that they point to Jesus. This view became the dominant position at that time and remains so to this day.

What about the second question? Does the text support this view? Biblical scholar Barry Leventhal, in Why I Am a Christian,  offers four arguments against the view.

In addition, the passage itself yields at least four arguments countering the claim that the nation Israel, or for that matter any other mere human being, is the promised Suffering Servant of the Lord. First is the Servant’s sinlessness (52:13; 53:9): The Servant of Isaiah 53 is described as without sin, that is, completely innocent in thought, word, and deed. He is perfect in his actions as well as his reactions. Where is the Jew who would dare to proclaim Israel, or for that matter even Moses or Isaiah, to be without sin? Why the need for a national Day of Atonement (Leviticus 16)? Or for Isaiah’s indictment against Israel’s sinful rebellion against God (Isaiah 1)? Or for that matter, Isaiah’s confession of his own sinfulness (Isa. 6:5–7)?

Second is the Servant’s submission (53:7): The Servant of Isaiah 53 submits (without any resistance whatsoever) to be slaughtered like a lamb. He lays down his life as a sacrifice, willingly and voluntarily, in an absolute sense. There are few exceptions in secular history and none in biblical history that Israel ever submitted passively to her fate. Quite the contrary, Israel’s heroism is well documented in the annals of history.

Third is the Servant’s cessation (death) (53:8–9, 12): The Servant of Isaiah 53 is ‘cut off out of the land of the living’ (53:8 NASB). ‘He poured out himself to death’ (53:12 NASB). The Servant is also portrayed as alive from the dead and enjoying fellowship with God and his faithful followers (52:13, 15; 53:10–12). Israel as a nation still exists and always has, even as God promised (cf. Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28). The nation has never ceased to exist, let alone been raised from the dead in any literal sense of the word.

Fourth is the Servant’s substitution (52:14–15; 53:4–6, 8, 10–12): The Servant of Isaiah 53 is a substitutionary atonement for others, not for himself. He is pictured as dying vicariously, punished for the sins committed by others. Israel, as well as Isaiah and all other individuals, were punished for their own sins. Accordingly, it is not surprising that Jewish prayer books make continual confessions on behalf of the Jewish people.

Leventhal concludes:

[N]o one else in all of history can come even close to fulfilling these, as well as the many other, messianic prophecies, except Yeshua himself. He alone is the promised Messiah who was born in Bethlehem, the totally unique One who died as the final Lamb of God—a vicarious and substitutionary atonement—and who was raised from the grave to enter into all of his own splendor and glory!

Commentary on Isaiah 52-53 (The Suffering Servant)

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 is recognized by many scholars as the fourth of the so-called Servant Songs in the Book of Isaiah. Henri Blocher, in The Servant Songs, entitles the four songs: (1) The Call of the Servant (Isa. 42:1–9); (2) The Commission of the Servant (Isa. 49:1–13); (3) The Commitment of the Servant (Isa. 50:4–11); and (4) The Career of the Servant (Isa. 52:13–53:12). The Servant in these songs is none other than the prophesied Messiah who would redeem both Jews and Gentiles alike, reconciling them to God.

What do these Songs say about the coming Messiah? Larry Heyler, in Yesterday, Today and Forever, summarizes the characteristics and accomplishments of the Servant:

  1. He is elected by the Lord, anointed by the Spirit, and promised success in his endeavor (42:1, 4).
  2. Justice is a prime concern of his ministry (42:1, 4).
  3. His ministry has an international scope (42:1, 6).
  4. God predestined him to his calling (49:1).
  5. He is a gifted teacher (49:2).
  6. He experiences discouragement in his ministry (49:4).
  7. His ministry extends to the Gentiles (49:6).
  8. The Servant encounters strong opposition and resistance to his teaching, even of a physically violent nature (49:5–6).
  9. He is determined to finish what God called him to do (49:7).
  10. The Servant has humble origins with little outward prospects for success (53:1–2).
  11. He experiences suffering and affliction (53:3).
  12. The Servant accepts vicarious and substitutionary suffering on behalf of his people (53:4–6, 12).
  13. He is put to death after being condemned (53:7–9).
  14. Incredibly, he comes back to life and is exalted above all rulers (53:11–12; 52:15).

Let’s zero in on the fourth song contained in Isaiah 52-53. Messianic Jew and biblical scholar Barry Leventhal, writing in Why I Am a Christian, breaks down the passage as follows:

1. In the prologue of the song (Isa. 52:13–15), the prophet Isaiah asserted (on behalf of God) that the Servant of the Lord would ultimately be highly exalted (v. 13), as well as honored among the Gentiles (v. 15), but only after dreadful personal suffering (v. 14).

2. In the body of the song (53:1–9), Isaiah confessed (on behalf of his own people) that (1) Israel utterly rejected the Servant of the Lord in his life (vv. 1–3), (2) as well as in his death (vv. 7–9), because (3) the nation misjudged the meaning of his death by assuming that he died for his own sins rather than for the nation’s (vv. 4–6).

3. In the epilogue of the song (53:10–12), the prophet asserted (on behalf of God) that by the Servant’s completed work of atonement, God would be exalted (v. 10), believers would be justified (v. 11), and the Servant himself would be honored (v. 12).

Do these verses predict the resurrection of the Messiah? Leventhal argues that they do.

It is obvious that a dramatic transition occurs between Isaiah 53:9 and 53:10. The messianic Suffering Servant ‘was cut off out of the land of the living’ [a Hebrew idiom for death] (53:8 NASB), ‘His grave was assigned to be with wicked men, . . . in His death’ (53:9 NASB), and ‘He poured out Himself to death’ (53:12 NASB). And yet in 53:10–12, he is alive and well, “prolong[ing] His days’ (53:10), justifying the many who believe on him (53:11), and sharing in the spoils of his victorious war (53:12).

Without question, this is the messianic Servant’s triumphant resurrection from the dead! This transition is similar to the break in Psalm 22, ‘The Messianic Psalm of the Cross,’ between 22:21 and 22:22. This should not be surprising since the Messiah’s resurrection from the dead was directly prophesied in the Hebrew Scriptures, specifically in Psalm 16. This psalm was used in the preaching of the early messianic community as an apologetic for the Messiah’s resurrection, with the result that thousands of Jews became believers (cf. Acts 2:25–28; 13:35–37; also, Luke 24:25–27, 44–48; 1 Cor. 15:1, 3–8; 1 Peter 1:10–12).

Perhaps the most astounding insight Isaiah has about the coming Messiah, which had never before been explicated in the Hebrew Scriptures, was the idea that a man (the Servant or Messiah) could suffer and die, and through his suffering and death, bring healing, forgiveness, and righteousness to other people. John F. A. Sawyer, in Isaiah: Volume 2, The Daily Study Bible Series, writes,

The prophet is entering new territory for an Old Testament writer, but what in essence he is saying is that somehow or other the community experiences healing, forgiveness and righteousness, as on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:22). Divine intervention has done what they could not do themselves: it has removed their sins and transformed suffering into a source of hope and healing. Psalm 51:10–17 offers a rough parallel, but there is no other Old Testament passage where such a way of thinking is developed. So unexpected is it that even Matthew quotes verse 4 in a totally different context (Matt. 8:17). Not until 1 Peter 2:24 is the full meaning of the passage appreciated. And Paul discovers the truth about the death of Christ without reference to Isaiah 53: ie ‘For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous’ (Rom. 5:19).

After reading the fourth Servant Song, who is it that immediately comes to mind? Whose life exactly matches the predictions made in Isaiah 52-53? None other than Jesus Christ Himself.

This passage played a major role in the conversion of the Jewish college student, Barry Leventhal. When he was asked by Christians to read Isaiah 52-53 (and other messianic passages) for himself, he was convinced that Christians must have added it to the Hebrew Bible! He accused his Christian friends of fraud and deceit. Only later did he discover that this passage had always been in the Hebrew Bible, but modern Jews have been studiously avoiding it because of its obvious implication that Jesus Christ is the Suffering Servant whom Isaiah prophesied.

Another Messianic Jew and scholar, Michael Brown, in Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus: Volume 3, summarizes:

Isaiah 52: 13– 53: 12 is one of the most important Messianic prophecies in the entire Hebrew Bible, and I would not be exaggerating to say that more Jews have put their faith in Jesus as Messiah after reading this passage of Scripture than after reading any other passage in the Tanakh. To the unbiased reader, it clearly speaks about the death and resurrection of the righteous servant of the Lord on behalf of his sinful people. It speaks of Yeshua [Jesus]!

How Should We Understand Metaphorical Attributes of God?

The prophet Isaiah writes in chapter 40, verse 22, “It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in.” Does God literally sit above the earth in a tent? How are we to understand verses that speak of God in this manner?

Theologian Norman Geisler explains the important distinction between metaphysical and metaphorical attributes of God in his Systematic Theology, Vol. 2, God/Creation:

Not all language about God in the Bible is metaphysical (or literal). Scripture does employ many metaphorical and anthropological descriptions of (attributions to) God. God is said to have ‘arms’ (Deut. 33:27), ‘eyes’ (Heb. 4:13), and even ‘wings’ (Ex. 19:4). He is called a ‘rock’ (1 Sam. 2:2), a ‘tower’ (Prov. 18:10), and a ‘shield’ (Gen. 15:1).

The difference between metaphorical and metaphysical attributions of God is found in the nature of God and what is being said of Him. Metaphysical attribution is based on the way God actually is—it results from His efficient causality. It is like its Cause; it is based in an intrinsic causal relation between an efficient cause and its effect. . . .

However, a metaphorical attribution of God is not the way God actually is. It is based on an extrinsic causal relation; it is not like its Cause.

So why do the biblical writers employ metaphors so frequently? Doesn’t this just lead to confusion?

There are several reasons for using metaphorical expressions of God.

First, metaphors often inform us what God can do, not what He is. They often describe His abilities, not His attributes. Thus, He is like a strong tower or shield that can protect us, or He has wings that can hold us up, etc.

Second, metaphors communicate what God is like in an indirect and non-literal way. The nonliteral actually depends upon the literal. We know God is not literally a stone, since we know He is literally an infinite Spirit, and a stone can be neither infinite nor a spirit. But once we know that God is not literally a stone, a metaphor does tell us what he literally is, namely, stable and immovable.

Third, metaphors (similes and other figures of speech) are often evocative, even though they are not literally descriptive; that is, they do not literally and directly describe God. Even so, they do evoke a response to Him (while metaphysical descriptions often do not). Hence, metaphors are frequently used in the Bible because God wants a response from us. For example, compare the evocative power of a metaphorical vs. a metaphysical statement about God:

  • Metaphysical: God is the uncaused Cause of our being.
  • Metaphorical: ‘Underneath are the everlasting arms’ (Deut. 33:27).
  • Metaphysical: God is omnipotent.
  • Metaphorical: ‘Who is like me and who can challenge me? And what shepherd can stand against me?’ (Jer. 49:19).
  • Metaphysical: God is omniscient.
  • Metaphorical: ‘Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account’ (Heb. 4:13).

Verse 22 in Isaiah 40 is clearly, then, a metaphorical description of God. Since we know that God is literally an immaterial spirit, then He cannot be physically sitting down under a tent. The verse is trying to communicate the metaphysical attribute of God’s infinite power.

Commentary on Isaiah 40 (Comfort for God’s People)

Chapter 39 of Isaiah ends with a prophecy that Judah will be conquered by the Babylonians sometime in the future (after King Hezekiah is dead and gone). Although Hezekiah is relieved that it will not happen in his lifetime, the people of Judah wondered what would happen to their kingdom. Hadn’t God promised them the land of Canaan? Hadn’t He promised them peace? Hadn’t He promised them a righteous king from the lineage of David?

Chapter 40 addresses these issues for the people of God. Isaiah writes to his contemporaries one hundred years before their exile to Babylon, but he also writes to the exiles who will wonder what has happened to God’s promises to Israel. Imagine that you are part of the remnant in exile around 516 BC. What does Isaiah have to say to you after your people have been in a foreign land for 70 years?

Verses 1-2 tell the exiles that their punishment is complete. God promised He would exile Israel and Judah if they were disobedient and that is exactly what He did. For 70 years Judah has been exiled in Babylon, but exile is coming to an end.

Verses 3-11 feature messages from three heralds or voices. The first herald gives the glorious news that God is coming to His people’s aid. In the ancient world, roads would be improved to enable the smooth travel of a visiting dignitary. The first herald is reassuring Israel that this will be done for God.  J. A. Motyer, in The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary, writes that the “Lord’s road is to be straight (3d), level (4ab) and free of obstacle (4cd), i.e. he will arrive without fail, travel without difficulty and be undelayed by hindrances.” All of the New Testament gospel writers refer to John the Baptist as the first herald of Isaiah 40. John was announcing the coming of God in the person of Jesus Christ.

The second herald, in verses 6-8, cries out that humans are transient beings that cannot be counted on. They physically deteriorate and they are morally unreliable as well. In contrast to human frailty, God’s word stands forever. God never fails. God never reneges on His promises.

The third herald, in verses 9-11, commands the people of Judah/Israel to spread the word that God is coming with power and tenderness. He will tend to the weak members of His flock, while executing on His plan to restore Israel.

The final section of chapter 40, verses 12-31, is an argument against a particular position that Isaiah wants to counter. The position is actually stated in verse 27 and goes like this: “God can’t see my plight and He doesn’t answer my prayers.” In essence, they are questioning 1) whether God has the capacity to see their suffering, and 2) whether He is faithful to do something about it. This is what the Israelites in exile would be saying about God, and Isaiah wants to reject this thinking. How will he do so?

Isaiah must remind the people of Israel who God is, because they have obviously forgotten what they have been taught. In poetic fashion, Isaiah describes God in verses 12-17. God alone is the Creator of everything on earth. Nobody can advise Him. Nobody can teach Him. No nation on earth can withstand Him. There aren’t enough animals in the world that could be sacrificed to dignify Him. He is unique and unparalleled, unlike all the other gods worshiped in the ancient world.

J. A. Motyer writes:

In Babylonian mythology, the creator god Marduk could not proceed with creation without consulting ‘Ea, the all-wise’, but the Lord works with unaided wisdom. In both Babylonian and Canaanite creation stories the creator must overcome opposing forces before the way opens for the work of creation. To the contrary, the Old Testament not only tells the story of creation in a way that demands a monotheistic doctrine of God (Gn. 1) but also uses the concept of creation to point to the fact of only one God (Ps. 96:5). In verse 12 the Creator was alone in the work of creation; here he is alone also in the wisdom needed for the work.

In verses 18-20, Isaiah mocks those who think that God can be represented by a man-made idol. The idea is absurd.

Isaiah continues to expound on the attributes of the incomparable God of Israel in verses 21-26. God sits above the earth and to him all of its inhabitants look like grasshoppers. He spreads out the stars like a tent where He can dwell. The princes and rulers on the earth are nothing to Him. God can blow them out of existence just as the wind blows away wheat chaff. When you look up at the stars, know that God created every single one of them, giving each one a name.

In answer to the complaint that God cannot see the plight of the exiles, Isaiah has clearly made the case that He can. After all, how can the Creator of everything not know what is happening to the exiles? The idea is silly.

In verses 28-31, Isaiah tackles the complaint that God does not care for His people, that He does not keep His promises or answer their prayers. Since God is the eternal Creator, He never grows weary and never tires. The implication is that He is fully able and willing to help His people no matter how much time has gone by. God promises that for those who wait on Him, for those who trust Him, He will give strength. He will renew them. “They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”

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