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Introduction to Ezekiel - A Watchman in a Changing World

There's "thick skin", and then there's what Ezekiel needed.

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Ezekiel 3

In this explosive introduction to the book of Ezekiel, we introduce the Babylonian captivity , the man Ezekiel, and the daunting task god gave him. In order to share the truth of God with the hard-headed Jewish exiles, Ezekiel would have to have an even harder head. He was about to become a watchman for a people who had forgotten who God was.

Tell them, ‘This is what the Lord God says,’ whether they listen or refuse to listen. (3:11)

This week, we introduce a new (and daunting!) book of the Bible, plus we're knee-deep in the Christmas season. There are so many ways you could go! This week's post is going to be rather focused on the passage -- if you want to have a Christmas discussion or anything like that, I trust your creative juices. For the sake of time, I'm only going to throw out two opening topic ideas.

Btw, even postponing some discussions to future Sundays, this week's post is pretty long. I doubt you can cover everything you want in one morning. In the weeks to come (we're only spending 6 weeks in Ezekiel), you might find places to inject some of the topics you had to skip for this week's discussion.

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Great Cities of the Ancient World

Which Ancient City Would You Love to Visit in Its Heyday?

Even if you don't care about history at all (and are thus doomed to repeat it), you should know enough about it to want to visit some great place from the past. I do love history, and there are a number of places I would love to visit:

  • Tenochtitlan (I know this isn't quite as ancient as the others, but from everything I've learned, this city was a wonder)

  • Athens

  • Rome

  • Cairo

  • Jerusalem

  • Alexandria (that's a painting of the destruction of the city and the loss of its library, one of the great tragedies of western history; I'm not suggesting that I want to visit Alexandria during its destruction)

Why would you want to visit there? What would you hope to see or experience?

If you didn't mention this one, I'd like to suggest ancient Babylon as another candidate for your attention. You can watch this short "flyover" animation to gain an appreciation for it.

[Note: I will talk more about Babylon NEXT WEEK.]

Anyway, let me get to the point of this topic. Let's say you could visit this ancient city in its heyday. But here's the catch: you get dropped in as you are. You don't speak the language, you don't know the customs, and you don't have any friends who can help you.

Is that such a great visit anymore? Are you thinking you'll even survive the day?

That was the experience of the Jews when they went to Babylon. They had the small group of people they were taken with, and maybe they had a few words they could communicate with. But that's it. Can you try to imagine what that would be like? [Note: I mention refugee camps later in this post.]

Option 2: The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

If that topic doesn't sound appealing, you can give an informal quiz about the seven wonders of the ancient world. I wonder how many your group can come up with!

Here's an overview page from -- try to think of them on your own before you click on the link!

The Hanging Gardens of Babylon was one of those wonders. Here's a short video about it (but remember -- I'll cover Babylon itself NEXT WEEK):

(Full disclosure -- growing up, when I thought of "hanging gardens" I thought of a greenhouse filled with hanging plants. Didn't seem all that impressive.)

(Second disclosure -- not everybody believes that the hanging gardens of Babylon were in Babylon. Here's an article defending a theory that they were actually in Nineveh:

None of that changes how impressive ancient Babylon would have been!)

During the time the Jews were in exile in Babylon, Babylon was the largest city in the world. Even before the conquering began, Jerusalem probably only had a population of less than 10,000, so moving near the great city of Babylon probably would have been mind-blowing, like us moving to Paris or Rome.


This Week's Big Idea: Introducing Ezekiel (and Daniel)

Both Ezekiel and Daniel are daunting books, filled with strange visions and even stranger actions (plus not a few terrifying miracles). If we can understand what God was accomplishing through these two men, that will give us a context for everything they say, no matter how bizarre.

This quarter, we are going to split our time between the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. That's a good pairing -- they tell two different parts of the same story: the Jewish exile to Babylon. This era is so important to the history of God's people that three prophets were active at the same time:

  • Jeremiah -- active from 627-585 BC in Jerusalem

  • Daniel -- active from 605-536 BC in Babylon center

  • Ezekiel -- active from 592-570 BC in Babylon outskirts

This time period was not just life-changing for the Jewish people but for the entire world (and the future of western civilization):

  • 605 BC -- Nebuchadnezzar lifts the Neo-Babylonian people into an Empire that conquers and destroys the Assyrians

  • 586 BC -- Jerusalem is utterly destroyed

  • 539 BC -- the Persian Empire swallows Babylon with hardly a fight (the Persian way of life will have a huge influence on Alexander the Great when he arrives in 200 years)

Here's a timeline I put together for us (for everyone who likes a good timeline):

(Here's the whole timeline as a pdf:)

Timeline of the Exile
Download PDF • 151KB

Right now, we're just worried about Ezekiel. There are more dates given in Ezekiel than any other prophetic book:

  • His first prophecy (1:1, 3:16) -- seven years before the destruction of Jerusalem, somewhere between 593 and 592 BC

  • His latest prophecy (29:1) -- the 27th year of exile, or about 571/570 BC [note: the last prophecy in 40:1 is slightly earlier, fourteen years after the destruction of Jerusalem, around 572 BC].


The book is written autobiographically, so there's little doubt that Ezekiel wrote it. The name "Ezekiel" only appears twice (1:3, 24:24); he usually gets called "son of man" (like 2:1). The name "Ezekiel" means "God will strengthen" and is quite appropriate. Ezekiel was from a priestly family, and he was taken into exile when he turned 30, which is right when he would have been allowed to serve in the Temple. We don't know if he had children. His beloved wife died at the same time Jerusalem was destroyed. Ezekiel lived with other exiled Jews on the outskirts of Babylon, and he was an outsider in every way (as opposed to Daniel, who was held in high regard). Ezekiel did not cooperate with the elders (14:3, etc.), he did not support the "popular prophets" in Babylon (chap 13), and we'll see that he really didn't support the leaders in Jerusalem.

Why was Ezekiel so antagonistic toward everyone? Because the leaders were sinners, the popular prophets were peddling a false message of hope, and the people were completely wrong in what they thought about God. Ezekiel would be led to do some very bizarre things like not speaking, laying on his side for months, playing with the hair of his beard, and eating food cooked over dung. It's not because he had a mental disorder, as some skeptics have accused! One of my seminary professors put it this way: Ezekiel's "dramatic signs were the best method of communicating with an unreceptive audience of confused exiles." (The Prophets As Preachers by Gary Smith.)

In Jerusalem, as a priest, Ezekiel would have represented the people before God in the temple in priestly duty. But in exile, with no temple, Ezekiel had a new role -- he represented God to the people through teaching and prophecy.

About the Book of Ezekiel

The premise behind this book is pretty simple (even if I'm having a hard time figuring out how to say it). The Jews in Babylon had replaced the true God with their false notions of god. This made it very easy for some of them to integrate themselves into Babylonian culture -- indeed, many Jews chose to stay in Babylon when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem (Ezra 1-2).

There are three major movements in the book:

  1. You're Wrong about God: God *Will* Destroy Jerusalem (1-24)

  2. You're Wrong about God: God *Will* Destroy the Nations (25-32)

  3. You're Wrong about God: God Will Do Those Things *And* Still Restore His People (33-48)

Our first three lesson come from part 1, so let's start there. There were a lot of delusions about God circulating through the exiles:

  • As long as the temple was in Jerusalem, God had to defend it, so Jerusalem could never fall.

  • All of those prophecies about the fall of Jerusalem had to do with the end of time and would not happen anytime soon.

  • If God was in Jerusalem, He could not be in Babylon, so the Jews in Babylon were cut off from God.

You can see how those ideas were incompatible with who God really is, so Ezekiel had to destroy all of those wrong ideas. That's what happens in this first part of the book:

  1. God *Will* Destroy Jerusalem (1-24)

    1. Ezekiel's call to be a prophet/watchman (1-3)

    2. Signs of Jerusalem's destruction (4-7)

    3. Proof of the temple's desecration (8-11)

    4. Destroying the false hopes of the people (12-14)

    5. Jerusalem's failures (15-19)

    6. Jerusalem cannot be saved (20-24)

The final destruction of Jerusalem happened in 586 BC -- all of the prophecies in chapters 1-24 happened before that. Ezekiel's wife died (24:15-27) as Jerusalem fell.

Here's a narrative overview of each section:

  • Ezekiel's Call: no one is going to want to hear what he has to say, so no one is going to listen to him. Ezekiel must have a backbone of steel and skin of granite.

  • Jerusalem's Destruction: this is not some far-off event but something that will happen soon. God's people will have to acknowledge that God is dealing with them for their sins; they can no longer ignore it.

  • The Temple's Desecration: Ezekiel saw visions of Jerusalem's elders worshiping idols and Jews worshiping the sun while in the temple. They had rejected God, and so God would not have mercy (except on the righteous remnant).

  • False Hopes: the failure of the Jews meant that they were not God's chosen people; even the elders in exile had set up idols in their hearts!

  • Jerusalem's Failures: these dramatic images of how God had to deal with the people showed that the people were being disciplined for their own sins, not for the failures of their parents and grandparents.

  • Jerusalem's Destruction: God cannot stand how His people have shed the blood of innocents, oppressed the orphan and widow, been financially dishonest, been sexual abusers, and worshiped idols. Therefore, He would scatter them in exile and there purify them in the furnace of the nations. (God also rebuked the people for their willingness to depend on alliances with Assyria and Babylon and Egypt rather than God, and that leads into the next part of the book.)

There's a key phrase throughout Ezekiel,

"you will know that I am the Lord"

that makes this all clear. The people no longer knew God. They had substituted God's truth for made-up notions, and they viewed God like the false gods of the pagans.

But there's at least one major positive correction that needed to be made:

  • God is still with His people, even when He disciplines and punishes them. The people thought they were abandoned in Babylon, but God was with them even there. They were still a community, and their remnant would be the seed of the return and the new Jewish people after the exile.

Anyway, that helped me make a lot more sense out of this first part of the book. Here's the Bible Project video of Ezekiel (part 1):

This Week's Big Idea #2: The Babylonian Exile

With that said, a key theme of the Bible is exile. Two events in particular shaped the Jewish consciousness: their slavery in Egypt, and their exile in Babylon.

In the Bible, the exile in Babylon is painted as illustrative of the human condition. Just as Adam and Eve were exiled from the Garden of Eden due to their sin, all people are now forced to live in a hostile world that is corrupted by sin. How do they cope? How do they respond? The exile in Babylon forced the Jews to realize their own sinfulness, and what the prophets said to them is very helpful to us today. Consider this video:


The exile to Babylon actually happened in three separate waves. Here's some detail:

  • 612 BC -- Babylon conquers the Assyrian army at Nineveh

  • 609 BC -- good king Josiah was killed needlessly interfering with the Egyptian army traveling north to fight, and Egypt takes control of Jerusalem

  • 605 BC -- Babylon conquers the Egyptian army at Carchemish and occupies the entire area, including Judah. *The First Exile* Nebuchadnezzar takes some of the brightest Jews from Jerusalem (including Daniel) to serve him in Babylon.

  • 597 BC -- Babylon has some trouble with Egypt, so Jews in Judah rise up and kill some Babylonian representatives; this brings a hash reaction. *The Second Exile* Nebuchadnezzar conquers and pillages Jerusalem and takes even more of the leading Jews to be captive in Babylon (including Ezekiel and king Jehioachin, the grandfather of Zerubbabel).

  • 586 BC -- despite warnings from Jeremiah, Jews in Jerusalem against revolt against Babylon and align with Egypt. This results in the utter destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and *The Third Exile* in which most Jews from Jerusalem were exiled, leaving only farmers to work the land.

  • 582 BC -- some remaining Jews assassinate the Babylonian governor and escape to Egypt, taking Jeremiah with them. Babylon did more bad things in Jerusalem in retaliation. There was no further resistance.


The way the prophets (particularly Jeremiah) told the Jews how to live in exile is very applicable to us today. Maybe we can learn the lesson better than they did.

So, wow -- that's a whole lot. Obviously, you can't talk about it all in one morning! Instead, as you go through the Bible study, listen for the questions that come up; this post can be a resource to help you answer them in the weeks to come.


Part 1: Prepared (Ezekiel 3:8-11)

8 Look, I have made your face as hard as their faces and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. 9 I have made your forehead like a diamond, harder than flint. Don’t be afraid of them or discouraged by the look on their faces, though they are a rebellious house.” 10 Next he said to me, “Son of man, listen carefully to all my words that I speak to you and take them to heart. 11 Go to your people, the exiles, and speak to them. Tell them, ‘This is what the Lord God says,’ whether they listen or refuse to listen.”

With the background I gave above, this section should make plenty of sense. Chapter 2 has a similar call (with more detail):

2: 3 He said to me, “Son of man, I am sending you to the Israelites, to the rebellious pagans who have rebelled against me. The Israelites and their ancestors have transgressed against me to this day. 4 The descendants are obstinate and hardhearted. I am sending you to them, and you must say to them, ‘This is what the Lord God says.’ 5 Whether they listen or refuse to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them.

Why the repetition? I think both for Ezekiel (to get him through the hard days ahead) and for the people who might consider listening to him (a very sure call).

God's commission to Ezekiel just before our passage gives us some great context:

3: 4 Then he said to me, “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak my words to them. 5 For you are not being sent to a people of unintelligible speech or a difficult language but to the house of Israel."

Here is Ezekiel -- a stranger in a strange land, a speck on the doorstep of the greatest empire in the world. And yet, it would be easier to be a prophet to Babylon than to God's own people! The Babylonians would be more likely to listen to and heed Ezekiel's words that the Jews would!

This, I'm sure, would be so frustrating to Ezekiel as to be soul-crushing. But Ezekiel could not lose heart or give up. No matter what God tells him to say and do (and those things will get increasingly difficult as the years go by), he must be absolutely sure in who he is as God's messenger, and he must completely trust the God who gives him words to say.

[Aside/Application: realizing from the videos above that all of us have an "exile experience" in this world, God's words to Ezekiel can also give us hope and direction. We're around people -- including people in our church communities -- who don't want to listen to the truth, who don't believe in the God of the Bible, who have invented gods in their own minds. Like Ezekiel, we can't let them discourage us or distract us from our path.]

The way God prepares Ezekiel for his task is kind of funny, basically saying "I'm going to make you just as stubborn as the Jews around you". Of course, that's intended to say more about the people than Ezekiel. They were no longer willing to listen to God.

Obviously, we know that "diamond" is just about the hardest substance known to man. The Hebrew word [shamir] can mean a number of things, most usually "sharp" or "thorn" or "flint" or "adamant", but in some other literature, this word is used of a diamond or equivalent gem. Diamonds were introduced to the Near East by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, so this is probably not a reference to diamonds properly. But the context is clear that Ezekiel's forehead will be as hard as any substance known to man, so we're safe with the word "diamond", even if technically it might refer to a different mineral/element/substance.

There are two different uses of the title "Son of Man" in the Old Testament, and they are not coincidentally found in the two books we're studying this quarter:

  • In Ezekiel, "son of man" is used throughout the book as God's way of identifying Ezekiel.

  • In Daniel, "The Son of Man" is how Daniel identified the glorious being who approached God's throne.

You know that Jesus used the term to refer to Himself in the Gospels. Some skeptics have said that Jesus was using it like God did for Ezekiel -- for just another normal dude called by God. Because we have so much else to cover this week, I strongly recommend holding off on this topic until we cover the Daniel passage. For now, let's suffice by saying that this is God's way of identifying Ezekiel with the human race.

The commission gets even worse for Ezekiel -- he has a message to take to the exiles whether or not they listen. In this, Ezekiel is in good company, as God gave a similar warning to other prophets (see the most dramatic instance in Isaiah 6:9-13).

On the one hand, that should give us encouragement today -- if God's appointed prophets were rejected by God's own people, then we should expect rejection when we take the gospel to the nations. But on the other hand, it also reminds us that we're fighting an uphill battle in our world. Ezekiel had to have a "forehead like diamond" if he would stubbornly persist in his difficult commission. How strong are we in fulfilling our Great Commission?


Part 2: Overwhelmed (Ezekiel 3:12-15)

12 The Spirit then lifted me up, and I heard a loud rumbling sound behind me—bless the glory of the Lord in his place!— 13 with the sound of the living creatures’ wings brushing against each other and the sound of the wheels beside them, a loud rumbling sound. 14 The Spirit lifted me up and took me away. I left in bitterness and in an angry spirit, and the Lord’s hand was on me powerfully. 15 I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who were living by the Chebar Canal, and I sat there among them stunned for seven days.

Ezekiel took this about as well as anybody -- sitting in stunned silence for a week.

Here's what's going on. In chapter 1, Ezekiel had a very bizarre vision of four strange living creatures, weird wheels, and a vault with a throne. It was the glory of God appearing to Ezekiel (more about this below). Ezekiel smartly falls to his face, and that's when God gives him the commission in chapters 2 and 3.

Apparently, here in verse 12, God lifts Ezekiel into this vision (this seems to be literal -- see 1 Ki 18:12, Isa 40:24), maybe to before the throne, where he was completely overwhelmed by it all, even describing the sounds of the wings of the creatures (!! that's a detail). Eventually, God puts Ezekiel back.

[Aside: "The Spirit" is a fantastic nugget of a detail. You know that the word for "spirit" also means "breath" or "wind". In the Old Testament, God's "Spirit" is what filled people with God's wisdom and knowledge (and visions). It seems like Ezekiel is using the word in both senses -- he is in a vision (which would be from God's Spirit), and he is being lifted by a wind (which would also be representative of God's Spirit).

So, yes, we should view this as a glimpse into the Trinity, even though the Jews wouldn't have thought of it that way. They would have understood this to mean an "action" of God, or possibly as a "representation" of God, but nothing akin to the Trinity.]

When all of this was done, Ezekiel was bitter, and he returned to the Jewish exiles. We don't know exactly where Tel-Abib was (and that's pretty normal -- "tel/tell" means "mound" and often refer to the destroyed remains of an ancient city that had been reduced to rubble; not to be confused with "Tel Aviv", the most expensive city in the world to live in), or where the Chebar Canal/Kebar River was. The Jewish exiles were probably pretty close to Babylon where they could be watched. Remember, even now they already have a reputation for being obstinate and rebellious.

Why was Ezekiel bitter? Not because he had to leave God's presence. And I don't think it's because he was upset about what was going to happen. Remember -- God chose Ezekiel because he was stubborn, and then God amplified his stubbornness. I think Ezekiel is bitter about his commission from God! And not so much a "why me?" as a "why should I have to go through this is it isn't going to accomplish anything?" As somebody who is stubborn, I think that's how my initial reaction to God would go. That's what I would be bitter about. And of course Ezekiel's stubbornness is exactly what's going to keep him going when everyone around him thinks he's gone insane.

The seven days of silence serves two purposes. First, it expresses Ezekiel's anger with his own people (for behaving this way toward God). He's so mad, he doesn't want to say anything to them. But second, I think this is actually God's first message through Ezekiel to the exiles. Note that Ezekiel's silence ends when God speaks to him (see next verse). I think this served to symbolize how God would become silent to His people when they would later want to hear from Him. Something like the irony of the people having a prophet of God among them, and yet the prophet won't speak to them. It's yet another condemnation.

I also want to point us back to something we skipped in 3:1-3 -- the very strange command from God that Ezekiel was to "eat the scroll" that God gave him, which he did. Certainly, that's symbolic of Ezekiel receiving a message from God, but I think it's more than that. Much of this book reads like a lament. By eating it, Ezekiel was taking it into himself, meaning he would become/experience his message (which we will see all the ways he did just that). A seven-day period of silence and mourning was consistent with a lament. [Note: there's even more to it than that -- a scroll from God was "fixed", meaning that the words could not be changed. Everything that God said to Ezekiel was fixed. These things would all happen; they could not be stopped.]

Have you ever been discouraged or upset from something you learned from God? (I'm specifically thinking of something you learned from the Bible, or perhaps an answer to a prayer that you didn't like.) How did you handle that? What did you do?

Can you think of other people in the Bible who struggled with what God said to them or called them to do? To my mind jumps Moses, Gideon, Elijah, Jonah, John the Baptist, Peter, and even Paul. Pick one such person and investigate their relationship with God. How did they handle their struggle? What can you learn from them?


Aside: Refugee Camps

I'm going to work this in later in the quarter, but some people in your group might want to talk about it now. We had a guest speaker in our church this week -- they serve as missionaries to the Sudanese living in refugee camps in Uganda. My guess is that modern refugee camps is as close as we will be able to come to approximating the experience of the Jewish exiles living near Babylon. Anyone in your group who was there for the missionary's presentation might want to share some impressions. Otherwise, keep this topic in the back of your head for use in a future week!


Part 3: Assigned (Ezekiel 3:16-21)

16 Now at the end of seven days the word of the Lord came to me: 17 “Son of man, I have made you a watchman over the house of Israel. When you hear a word from my mouth, give them a warning from me. 18 If I say to the wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ but you do not warn him—you don’t speak out to warn him about his wicked way in order to save his life—that wicked person will die for his iniquity. Yet I will hold you responsible for his blood. 19 But if you warn a wicked person and he does not turn from his wickedness or his wicked way, he will die for his iniquity, but you will have rescued yourself. 20 Now if a righteous person turns from his righteousness and acts unjustly, and I put a stumbling block in front of him, he will die. If you did not warn him, he will die because of his sin, and the righteous acts he did will not be remembered. Yet I will hold you responsible for his blood. 21 But if you warn the righteous person that he should not sin, and he does not sin, he will indeed live because he listened to your warning, and you will have rescued yourself.”

The idea of the "watchman" is key to Ezekiel. It's similar to the role of a prophet, but it's different. The urgency is even higher.

God repeats this commission to Ezekiel in chapter 33, but with a few more details that explains the role of the watchman:

33: 2 ‘Suppose I bring the sword against a land, and the people of that land select a man from among them, appointing him as their watchman. 3 And suppose he sees the sword coming against the land and blows his ram’s horn to warn the people. 4 Then, if anyone hears the sound of the ram’s horn but ignores the warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his death will be his own fault. 5 Since he heard the sound of the ram’s horn but ignored the warning, his death is his own fault. If he had taken warning, he would have saved his life. 6 However, suppose the watchman sees the sword coming but doesn’t blow the ram’s horn, so that the people aren’t warned, and the sword comes and takes away their lives. Then they have been taken away because of their iniquity, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’

Every town had a watchman. The watchman had a critical but thankless job, as you can tell from the passage above. Ezekiel was a different kind of watchman -- he was to warn the people of the coming spiritual death. To me, this is similar to how God told Adam when he ate of the forbidden tree that he would die. Well, Adam didn't die physically right away, but his death became unavoidable, and his spiritual death was immediate.

That's now Ezekiel's job to warn the people about. Their physical death was imminent (remember -- many of Ezekiel's prophecies had to do with Jerusalem), and their spiritual death was upon them. Their identity as the physical descendants of Abraham would not avail them anything in the Final Judgment of God; they would pay the price for their sins.

People didn't want to hear that then, and they don't want to hear it today.

I see these verses as the most dramatically applicable to us today. We, as Christians, have the Word of Life. Apart from Jesus, there is no way to be right with God, and anyone who dies apart from salvation in Jesus will be forever separated from God in an eternal death. If they have heard and still rejected the gospel, that's on them. But if someone dies who has never heard the gospel, that's on us. Our soul will still be saved, but God will hold us accountable for their loss. We need to make sure that the people around us have heard the good news about Jesus. And also need to make sure that we have not clouded on confused that message by our words and actions!

In closing -- the key for this week is getting familiar with Ezekiel. If you can come away from the morning feeling not-so-afraid of the book, then it's been good.


Closing Thoughts: The Vision We Skipped in Chapter 1

A lot of readers never make it past chapter 1. They read this opening vision and call it off. These attempts to illustrate the vision explain what's so daunting. (Interestingly, JWs seem to love this chapter; not sure what that means.)

Poor Ezekiel! If that craziness is what artists come up with from Ezekiel's descriptions, we really can't even imagine what he actually saw!

Here's the point -- Ezekiel has had a vision of God Almighty. The colors, the mighty creatures, the great throne, all of that simply establishes the incomparable magnificence. The wheels indicate motion, that God is not "fixed in place". The strange creatures are simply mighty.

This is an example of "missing the forest for the trees" on the part of those people who try to dissect every detail. Ezekiel had a vision of God. He then tried to describe that vision. That's all there is to it.


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