[The following is a paper that I submitted for the Hebrew Prophets class at Nazarene Bible College]
ORIENTATION AND CONTEXT
Significance of Text
The call of Isaiah is one of the most important, if not the most important, passages in the book that bears Isaiah’s name. This chapter describes a vision in which Isaiah sees God’s majesty and holiness. During this time, Isaiah also receives his call to be a prophet to a people who will not listen to him. In fact, these people will have their hearts dulled to the message of God because of Isaiah’s constant preaching! Despite this, God commissions Isaiah as a prophet and sends him to speak a particular message to the people of Israel.
This chapter of Isaiah stands to highlight several aspects of God, including His holiness and majesty. These, of course, are not the only reasons that this text is significant. They are only some of the more prominent reasons.
Isaiah’s call in chapter 6 is significant because it paints a vivid picture of God’s holiness. This happens because of a sharp contrast between the holiness of God as proclaimed by the seraphim (v. 2-3) and the sinfulness of mankind as proclaimed by Isaiah (v. 5). God’s holiness is expressed through the constant threefold declaration of His holiness (v. 3). Isaiah confesses not only his own sinfulness, but also the sinfulness of the people around him, the very people to whom God would commission Isaiah to preach (v. 5). The holiness of God is seen clearly in this passage.
In addition to highlighting the holiness of God, this passage also highlights the sinfulness of mankind. Despite being called by God, whenever Isaiah was clearly aware of his own sinfulness when coming face-to-face with the Holy One (v. 5). Isaiah declared that he was “lost” (דָּמָה). This term literally means that Isaiah saw himself as “cut off” or “destroyed” because of his sinful state (Strong 1672). It may also imply being silent (Strong 1672). In the presence of the Holy God, Isaiah became fully aware of his sinful state and the sinfulness of the people around him and could not even find the proper words to speak.
This passage is also significant because it serves as a warning and a reminder that God will judge sin. God will only allow sin to go on for so long before He intervenes. Even though He judges sin, God’s mercy and grace can be clearly seen in His closing statement to Isaiah (v. 13).
The passage also serves as a reminder to the readers not to allow their hearts to become dull to the message of God. People can choose whether or not to respond to the message that God gives, and we should never allow our hearts to be so dulled by the message that we do not respond to it.
Isaiah’s call in chapter 6 is also significant because it serves as a reminder that God is still on the throne, regardless of what happens to earthly kings. Uzziah is dead, but God is alive and well. He is still on the throne. When understood against the political background of the day, this passage provides hope to those who are in politically uncertain circumstances. It is ultimately God who is in control, and He remains on the throne, even when political leaders come and go (v. 1).
One question that arises during the reading of this passage is where Isaiah’s vision took place to begin with. The vision itself is not the question, but the location of the vision is, as it would provide informative background information about the vision itself. Another question that arises as we read this passage is whether God is decreeing that the people’s hearts will become dull (v. 9-10) or whether He is merely telling Isaiah what will happen when the message is preached. Another major question that arises in the reading of this passage relates to the identity of the remnant mentioned at the end of the chapter (v. 13). Verse 13 clearly implies that God will not entirely destroy Judah but will leave a remnant. In order to properly understand the passage, we must understand who this remnant is. These questions will be addressed in the body of the paper.
Historical and Social Setting
There are several important factors that must be considered as we examine the authorship of the book that bears Isaiah’s name. First, we must recognize that the book of Isaiah contains prophecies about events that likely came after the prophet’s lifetime. One example of such a prophecy is found in Isaiah 45, where the Persian King Cyrus is mentioned by name as a ruler who was appointed by God. The issue is that King Cyrus reigned well over 100 years after Isaiah died! Thus, it seems unlikely that Isaiah wrote this prophecy.
A second factor that must be considered when examining the authorship of the book that bears Isaiah’s name is the unity of theme in the book itself. J. Gordon McConville explains, “Let us notice for now that the underlying contention in all parts of Isaiah remains the same—it is Yahweh, the true God, who is the only power behind the events of history” (McConville 2-3). It
is likely that, if multiple authors were involved, we would see far more diversity than we actually see.
A third factor that must be considered is the biblical data. In multiple places in the Old Testament, Isaiah son of Amoz was credited with authorship of at least part of the book that bears his name. In the book of Isaiah itself we find God instructing Isaiah to write down what he was told (Isaiah 8:1). In addition, the author of 2 Chronicles attributes the recording of the events surrounding King Uzziah to Isaiah, son of Amoz (2 Chronicles 26:22).
Given these factors, scholars tend to divide into three groups over the authorship of Isaiah. First, the traditional view holds that the prophet Isaiah wrote the entire book that bears his name sometime in the 8th and 7th centuries BC (Arnold 371-372). Second, many contemporary scholars accept that, while Isaiah wrote the majority of the first 39 chapters of this book during this time period, chapters 40-66 were the work of another author, often referred to as Deutero-Isaiah, who lived over 100 years after the death of Isaiah. Third, some individuals believe that Isaiah wrote the first 39 chapters of this book during the 8th and 7th centuries BC, that chapters 40-55 were the work of Deutero-Isaiah over 100 years later, and that chapters 56-66 were the work of a third author, called Tritro-Isaiah, at a later date near the end of the 6th century BC. I am generally in agreement with the view that “Isaiah’s words and deeds were remembered, recorded, and elaborated by a circle of disciples (8:16f). An Isaiah tradition developed, based on the teachings of the great prophet, and was passed on” (Flanders 367). It seems that the prophet Isaiah recorded many of the prophecies contained in the first 39 chapters of the book that bears his name when he prophesied from approximately 740 BC until approximately 701 BC (Eiselen 640). It is important to note that this does not call the authorship of Isaiah 6 into question, since this passage is overwhelmingly accepted as the authentic work of the prophet Isaiah, son of Amoz.
Since the book of Isaiah appears to address three different time periods, it is likely that the book originally addressed three different audiences. The primary audience of the first 39 chapters appear to be the people of Judah during the 8th century BC. This would be the most likely audience for Isaiah 6. Many of the prophecies, such as the one found in Isaiah 7:7-9, were originally given to individuals. However, they may have been recorded for the sake of an audience other than the individual to whom they were originally spoken. It appears that much of chapters 40-55 was written to comfort those who were living in exile in Babylon (House 192). It is definitely assumed that the Israelites were living in exile at the time. Chapters 56-66 appear to address Israelites who had returned from exile or who were preparing to return from exile. This section promises salvation for the nations, who will come to Zion and receive instruction from God.
Isaiah 6 appears to be a poetic expression of a historical event. That is, the text of Isaiah 6 is poetic, yet the poetic expression finds its root in a historical experience of Isaiah at the Jerusalem temple. Eiselen describes the recording of Isaiah’s experience by stating, “There is no other way of describing such an experience than by using figures of speech drawn from experiences of the physical senses….God revealed himself to the inner spirit, but man must tell of it in words of the body. It was just as real as though the eye had seen it” (Eiselen 643). As a prophetic work, the book of Isaiah is full of such language. Thus, it would not be odd for the language in Isaiah 6 to be understood as poetic, as well.
It is important to note, however, that Isaiah is not a book full of prophecies that are disconnected from the historical world. The book of Isaiah contains several narratives that are historical in nature. This gives us more reason to believe that the events recorded in the book are descriptive of events that actually took place rather than merely figures of speech.
Many scholars believe that, had Isaiah been composed in a chronological order, this passage would have stood at the very beginning of the book. This is based on the belief that this is the first call that Isaiah has received. However, this does not appear to be the case. During the introduction to Isaiah’s book (1:1), we are told that Isaiah prophesied during the reign of Uzziah. Yet in Isaiah 6, Uzziah is dead! It follows, therefore, that Isaiah prophesied prior to this experience in the temple. It seems that this was not the first call that Isaiah received to prophesy. Thus, we have little reason to doubt the placement of this chapter in its current location.
Immediately prior to Isaiah’s vision in the Jerusalem temple are several chapters of prophecy directed at Judah, including a section of woes and judgments against the people of Judah (Isaiah 5:8-30). Immediately after Isaiah’s vision is a narrative in which God commands Isaiah to go and comfort King Ahaz, the grandson of King Uzziah. In the chapter immediately prior to Isaiah’s vision Judah receives judgment because of their transgression against the LORD (יְהֹוָה). Immediately after Isaiah’s vision Judah is comforted because God is still in control. Recognizing and responding properly to God’s authority can be incredibly comforting while failing to recognize His authority will only lead to a downfall.
PRESENTATION OF TEXT
Isaiah 6:1-13 “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: with two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.” Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” he said, “Go and tell this people: “‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’ Make the heart of this people calloused; make their ears dull and close their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” Then I said, “For how long, Lord?” And he answered: “Until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken. And though a tenth remains in the land, it will again be laid waste. But as the terebinth and oak leave stumps when they are cut down, so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” (NIV)
Text Critical Notes
The word used to describe the seraphim in this passage (שָׂרָף) is used elsewhere to describe serpents (see Numbers 21:6 NIV). This has lead some scholars to believe that the seraphim may have the appearance of a serpent. The word itself means “burning ones,” and some scholars have concluded that the seraphim may have had a burning appearance. Despite the description given in this passage, we cannot know the appearance of the seraphim in any definitive manner.
Some translations appear to change the object of “high and exalted” (v. 1). Some translations appear to indicate that the throne of God is high and exalted, while other translations appear to indicate that the Lord is high and exalted. While the object may change, it seems that this would not seriously affect the message of the passage.
There is some variation between the Hebrew text and the Septuagint regarding the rendering of portions of Isaiah 6:9b-10. The Septuagint reads, “You will be ever hearing, but never understanding; you will be ever seeing, but never perceiving. This people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes” (Zondervan 732)
Isaiah 6:13b may better be understood in terms of sacred pillars being cast down and high places destroyed rather than trees being chopped down. The Hebrew word matsevet (מַצֶּבֶת) typically carries the connotation of a sacred pillar (see 2 Samuel 18:18 NRSV). Thus, the allusion contains religious significance. It is also significant to note that at least part of this verse is missing from several manuscripts. Some scholars believe the ending of this passage to be an interpolation or a corruption.
Outline of Passage
I. Isaiah’s Encounter (v. 1-7)
A.) God’s Holiness
B.) Mankind’s Uncleanness
II. Isaiah’s Commission (v. 8-13)
A.) Isaiah Chosen
B.) Isaiah Sent
Isaiah’s vision took place in the year that King Uzziah died (v. 1). This is a key to understanding the opening portion of this passage of Scripture. King Uzziah had a long reign spanning a length of more than 50 years (2 Chronicles 26:3 NIV). Under the reign of King Uzziah, Israel enjoyed a period of prosperity and stability. He is described as one who ‘did what was right in the eyes of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 26:4a NIV). Later in life, however, King Uzziah became prideful and burned unauthorized incense in the temple (2 Chronicles 26:16). As a result, God struck Uzziah with leprosy, and Uzziah died a leper, banished from the temple and from God’s presence over his uncleanness (2 Chronicles 26:19-21 NIV). It was after the death of Uzziah that Isaiah came to the Jerusalem temple and saw the vision recorded in Isaiah 6:1-13.
It is also important to ask ourselves exactly where this vision took place. The majority of commentators and scholars appear to believe that Isaiah had his vision while in the temple at Jerusalem. This vision likely occurred while Isaiah was in the temple worshipping or seeking God after the death of Uzziah. Some scholars appear to disagree with this view, arguing for other settings in which this vision took place. However, these scholars are in the minority, and many of the alternative locations offered, such as an isolated wilderness-like area, would seem to give the passage an awkward context.
After the death of King Uzziah, the nation of Judah likely faced political uncertainty due to the threat of war with Assyria and general anxiety about the future. The king that appeared to prosper Judah and provide her stability was now dead. This makes Isaiah’s vision even more significant. In contrast to Israel’s dead king, Israel’s God is still alive, well, and on the throne! This is summarized nicely by the classic commentator Matthew Henry, who writes, “Israel’s king dies, but Israel’s God still lives. King Uzziah died a leper in an hospital, but the King of kings still sits upon his throne” (Henry 835). Isaiah’s vision informed both him and his readers that there should be no panic in turmoil because the God of Israel was still on the throne. Earthly kings come and earthly kings go, but God will not abdicate His throne. This was no doubt a source of great comfort to the audience of this passage.
Isaiah’s vision cannot be understood properly apart from the absolute declaration of God’s holiness (קָדוֹשׁ) found in this passage. God is exalted on His throne, high and lifted up. The seraphim flew around the throne of God, covering their faces and their feet while they cried to one another “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory” (v. 3b). This declaration of God’s holiness is a declaration of God’s “separateness” from creation (Geisler 565). Theologian H. Ray Dunning declares that God’s holiness “is that essential character of Deity that places God in a completely exclusive category and sharply distinguishes Him from the human and the naturalistic” (Dunning 187). Theologian Norman Geisler explains God’s holiness in a similar manner, declaring that “God’s holiness means that He is totally and utterly set apart from all creation and evil….It refers to His absolute moral uniqueness as well as His total separateness from all creatures. In one sense, holiness is an overall attribute of God that distinguishes Him from everything else that exists. God is holy by His very nature” (Geisler 566).
Some commentators and scholars, such as Matthew Henry, have attempted to find a reference to the Trinity within the threefold declaration of God’s holiness. This is simply an invalid way of understanding this passage because it involves requires those studying the passage to read back into Scripture something that was not present in Scripture at the time. Isaiah’s audience wouldn’t have understood the doctrine of the Trinity, much less have understood this threefold declaration of God’s holiness as a reference to the Trinity. It seems that the majority of scholars and commentators agree that we should not understand this as a reference to the Trinity. The threefold declaration of God’s holiness has nothing to do with the number of persons in the Godhead. Rather, it has everything to do with the magnitude of God’s holiness. With every repetition of the word “holy,” the magnitude of the word’s meaning was increased. To repeat God’s holiness three times is to declare that God is absolutely holy to the highest degree. In other words, “he is so highly exalted above his creatures as to be totally different from them, not only in his moral perfection (cf. 6:5) but also in his power, his wrath, his love, his faithfulness, and all his virtues” (Marshall 516). This does not mean that God’s immanence is ignored in this passage. In fact, many scholars see God’s immanence implied in statements such as “the train of his robe filled the temple” (v.1). Barker writes, “The language of fullness occurs three times in these verses (vv. 1,3,4), twice in reference to the temple and once to the whole earth. So this passage, insisting as it does on the awesome transcendence of the sovereign God, also emphatically teaches his immanence. His transcendence is not remoteness or aloofness but is known through his presence in his created world and temple. Divine transcendence and immanence are always held in balance in the Bible’s view of God” (Barker 1052). It is difficult to deny that both God’s transcendance and immanence are clear in this passage.
God’s holiness is further highlighted by Isaiah’s proclamation of himself as a man of unclean lips (v. 5). Some commentators, such as Matthew Henry, have taken this passage to mean that Isaiah had sinned in word (Henry 836). This may not be the way this was to be understood, however. It seems incredibly probable that the reader of this passage is to connect Isaiah’s statement with the praise that God received from the seraphim who cried out His praise constantly. The seraphim praised God for His holiness, but Isaiah could not even muster up words adequate to praise the Holy One. God’s holiness is highlighted in the fact that He is so holy that no praise that we could possibly give would be adequate to express how great, mighty, holy, and majestic He is. Faced with God’s holiness, Isaiah became undone (דָּמָה) as his own sinfulness and uncleanness became crystal clear. This may also be connected to the message that God would give Isaiah. Isaiah was not worthy to speak God’s message to the people to whom God sent him until his lips were cleansed by the coal from the altar.
It is important to note that the sinfulness here was not merely a feature of Isaiah. It was a feature of every person that Isaiah had ever come into contact with. Isaiah lived among a people who were in the same predicament that he found himself in (v. 5). This passage clearly teaches that sinfulness is a characteristic of the human race and not only a few individuals. God’s chosen people were sinful in His sight. How much more sinful were the Gentiles in His sight? Until we are cleansed by God, we are absolutely filthy in His sight. We have nothing good to offer Him. This principle is later reaffirmed by Tritro-Isaiah (Isaiah 64:6). Thus, we can utilize this passage to help inform our understanding of the doctrine of sin.
Some have attempted to insert Christ into the picture of the altar (v. 6-7). It may well be that the cleansing of Isaiah foreshadows the cleansing of God’s people through Christ. However, to say that this would have been understood by Isaiah’s audience is to again read into this passage a concept that would have been foreign to the immediate audience. It is likely that Isaiah’s original audience would have understood the altar as the location at which sacrifices were offered to atone for sins against God. Thus, the original audience may have understood the coals of the altar to be associated with cleansing from sin. In fact, it appears to be assumed that this is the case (v. 7). God is holy. Mankind is full of sin. Without God cleansing us of our sin, we have no choice but to become undone before the Lord.
The events surrounding the call of Isaiah happened in a particular order that is especially relevant to understanding the call of every Christian. First, God made Isaiah aware of his own sin (v. 5). Second, God atoned for Isaiah’s sin and took Isaiah’s guilt away (v. 6). Third, God commissioned Isaiah (v. 8). It does not appear that this ordering of events was accidental. God’s cleansing of Isaiah’s lips was a prerequisite for Isaiah’s declaration of God’s message to the people of Judah (Eiselen 643).
It may be asked whether God’s question (v. 8) implies that God’s knowledge is limited. Was God ignorant about what He was going to do through Isaiah and to the nation of Judah? The answer is clearly no. God’s question, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” (v.8) should not be understood as a statement made in ignorance. Indeed, the remainder of chapter 6 makes a sound case that God knew exactly what He was going to do. He informs Isaiah about the effects that the message Isaiah is to preach will have on the heart of the people of Judah (v. 9-10). God informs Isaiah of the ultimate fate of Judah (v. 11-13). In addition, the remainder of Scripture makes God’s vast knowledge of mankind and the future clear (Psalm 139:1-6). God is not ignorant of what will happen. Rather, He asks the question in the hearing of Isaiah because He knows that such a question will elicit Isaiah’s response. Rather than express God’s lack of knowledge, this question actually serves to highlight His vast understanding! The point of the question, however, was to elicit a response from Isaiah, not merely highlight His infinite knowledge. God asked this question because He knew it would elicit a response from a willing prophet that He would send to a people who were unwilling to listen. The holy God of Israel commissioned a prophet to go to an unholy people.
Some scholars and commentators see the Trinity again in God’s question to Isaiah (v. 8). The plural ‘us’ is said to imply that the Godhead is speaking rather than one person of the Trinity. While it may be possible for us to look at such a passage and see this in modern times, it would not have been understood in this manner by the people of Judah in the time of Isaiah. A plural self-reference was used from time to time by rulers during this time period (Walton 37). The plural self-reference may not have been a self-reference at all and may have actually referred to God and those around His throne who were attending Him (Walton 37). However, this second option appears to be the less plausible of the two. Granted that the plural self-reference appears elsewhere in Scripture as a way of expressing God’s greatness (Genesis 1:26) and the context of plural self-references on the lips of rulers, this is the more likely meaning of the plural “us” found in this verse.
It has been postulated that God sent Isaiah to intentionally callous the hearts of the people of Judah (v. 10). That is, some commentators appear to believe that God sent Isaiah for the sole purpose of ensuring that the hearts of the people of Judah were hardened. Did God send Isaiah for such a task? This is not how we should understand this passage. The callousness of their hearts was a byproduct of Isaiah’s preaching, and was no doubt accelerated by it. However, Isaiah was commissioned to preach a message to the people, not callous hearts. In telling Isaiah to preach this message to a stiff-necked people, God was warning Isaiah that the people would not return to Him and praise Him, and this would bring their demise (v. 11-12). God was essentially sending Isaiah to tell the Israelites that they could do things their way, but it will be to their own demise. The people of Judah could not say that God did not warn them about the coming destruction if they continued to reject Him. If the people of Judah wanted to continue to praise deaf and dumb idols, God would allow them to become deaf and dumb themselves (Walton 38). If they continued to reject the God of glory, they could have as much destruction as they wanted. If they continued in pride as Uzziah did, they would end up like Uzziah.
God’s mercy and grace on the people of Judah becomes clear in the declaration that He will leave them a remnant. When God says that a tenth will remain in the land (v. 13), some commentators believe He is referring to a remnant from the people of Judah. Others believe that He is referring to a remnant from both Israel and Judah. In this debate, it seems that the focus is on the wrong thing, God will definitely leave a remnant. However, the bigger message is that God will have mercy on and show grace to Judah, despite Judah’s refusal to heed His words. God’s mercy will be demonstrated by His refusal to completely destroy the people of Judah. Some scholars claim that this final section is a corruption or an interpolation, and thus this last point would be invalid. This does not appear to be the case. Eiselen makes a sound point in favor of this passage when he states that, “there is this to be said for it, that it accords well with Isaiah’s doctrine of the remnant. For the present at least, and unless and until more cogent reasons for its rejection are brought forward, we shall do well to retain it” (Eiselen 643). Even in the middle of God’s judgment, God’s mercy is proclaimed to the people of Judah.
God’s holiness is clearly seen in Isaiah’s encounter with the Holy One. God is perfectly holy in every aspect, so much so that seraphim surround His throne and constantly repeat His holiness. In light of God’s holiness, Isaiah’s sinfulness and the sinfulness of those around him became crystal clear, to the point that Isaiah could not bring any adequate praise to God.
God’s majesty is also clearly seen in Isaiah’s vision. While earthly kings come and go, God will always remain on the throne. He is still in control through every kind of turmoil, including political turmoil. God is in control. This was a reality that was hammered into Isaiah’s head by his encounter with the Holy One.
Mankind is so unclean and sinful before God that, without His cleansing us, we are not able to offer any kind of adequate praise. The throne is for God to sit on, but the altar is for us to come and have our guilt removed (v. 7).
If God sends an individual with His message, He first makes them aware of their own sin. Then He cleanses them of their sin. Finally, He sends them. An individual who has not had their sins atoned for is not qualified to preach God’s message. A person who is unaware of his own sin will not come to the altar to have his sins atoned for.
God knows exactly what He is doing when He commissions an individual to proclaim His message. God realizes what the result of the preaching will be, and He knows how to work it out for an ultimate good. He will not force people to listen to and obey His message, nor will He override their free will. To those who reject Him, God will eventually say, “Okay, have it your way, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.” Even when people choose destruction for themselves by rejecting the message that God sends to them, God will still show mercy and grace, albeit often in a manner that they would not have expected.
Christians should always keep God’s holiness at the forefront of their minds. We should always remember that God is far more holy than we could ever possibly express or imagine. We don’t even have the words in any language on earth to completely and totally explain how holy God truly is. God’s holiness is infinite, and we are finite. This should move us to worship every time we think about it. God is absolutely holy, and this should be expressed in the way that we live our lives. We must live with an awareness of our own sin, seeking to get rid of sin in our lives and honor God with holy living. This cannot be emphasized enough in this paper.
We remain attentive to the message that God is delivering. We should never allow our hearts to become so dull that we do not respond to the message that God is delivering to us. We should not allow ourselves to become rebellious against God’s word, so that it drives us away from God rather than to Him. We must remain open and attentive to His message and live in obedience to what He is saying.
When God calls us to a mission, we should respond as Isaiah did by simply saying, “Here am I. Send me” (v. 8). Isaiah’s willingness to go deliver the message contrasts sharply with the people of Judah’s refusal to receive the message. In this case, we should be an Isaiah and not a citizen of Judah. Above all, we should live lives that honor and please the Holy One with whom Isaiah came into contact.
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