Judah is taken into exile
The message of Ezekiel, a prophet of God
Born into a priestly family before the conquest of Judah by Babylon, Ezekiel is an intelligent man blessed with a good foundation in God’s law.
His family’s status in Jerusalem prior to 598 B.C. suggests he enjoys a socially prominent life.
Death In Exile
But power and influence have one major drawback—these are the qualities Nebuchadnezzar is looking for when he deports the chief citizens of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.
As the only biblical prophet called by God to minister directly to His exiled people, Ezekiel begins teaching and writing in 593 and continues until 571 B.C.
Other than in God’s visions, Ezekiel is never to return to Jerusalem. He dies in exile a full generation before the Persians conquer the Babylonians in 539 B.C. and the first wave of expatriates returns to rebuild Jerusalem.
The Siege And Capture
Ezekiel lives and works through one of the most turbulent periods in Israel’s history.
As a younger contemporary of the prophet Jeremiah, Ezekiel watches King Jehoiakim scheme against the Babylonian Empire and bring about the siege and capture of Jerusalem in 597 B.C.
The Davidic Monarchy
This results in the deportation of a number of key citizens from the holy city, including Ezekiel and the king’s son. Now living in exile, Ezekiel prophesies that King Zedekiah—Babylon’s puppet king—will do the same thing.
When Zedekiah does rebel, Nebuchadnezzar responds by leveling Jerusalem, burning God’s temple, and effectively ending the Davidic monarchy.
A Restored Jerusalem
Nebuchadnezzar’s destruction of Jerusalem is the turning point for Ezekiel’s prophecies. Prior to that war, Ezekiel sounds a lot like Jeremiah—urging his people to return to God and accept His punishment, and prophesying what will happen if they ignore His warnings.
But after Jerusalem’s destruction in 586 B.C.—when hope appears lost—Ezekiel sees a vision of a restored Jerusalem and gains insight into God’s new covenant with His people.
Ezekiel’s prophecies of restoration come true. The temple is rebuilt late in the sixth century, and God begins a new work with his people through Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
Lofty Visions And Prophetic Imaginations
However, the return from political exile does not produce the ideal existence back home many are hoping for. Political, economic, social, and spiritual realities do not match the lofty visions and prophetic imaginations about the world as God would make it.
As a result, many of God’s faithful people continue to feel as if there is more to come; and as it happens, they are right.
The literary structure of Ezekiel is arranged by how long the exiles have been in Babylonia after the 597 B.C. deportation of Jehoiachin and those with him ( 8:1; 20:1; 24:1; 26:1; 29:1; 31:1; 32:1; 40:1 ).
The expatriates are counting the days until they can return to their ancestral lands in order to rebuild the temple. If Ezekiel is 30 years old when he has his initial vision, he is about 50 years old when he has the temple vision (chapters 40–48).
Ezekiel’s strange vision of clouds and fires, light and lightning, creatures with four faces, wheels within wheels, and a throne-chariot is a prelude to his ultimate vision.
For a moment he glimpses a human like figure seated on a throne; this, he says, is the glory of the Eternal. The word “glory” refers to God’s visible manifestation. Though God is unseen, from time to time human beings are given the privilege of seeing His glory.
This glory accompanies Israel in the wilderness and resides in the temple in Jerusalem. But Ezekiel realizes God’s glory is not restricted to Jerusalem; it is in Babylon with those in exile. The fact that God’s glory is seen in Babylon and reported by His prophet offers comfort to those displaced in a foreign land.
The scroll Ezekiel is handed is a transcript of what he will report about Jerusalem’s fate to his fellow exiles in Babylonia. Although scrolls typically have writing on only one side (the front), the prophet sees that this scroll is covered with writing on both sides.
This signals not only the overflowing anger that God harbors for His people but also the scope of the disaster that will overwhelm God’s rebellious nation.
Like other prophets, Ezekiel often acts out his messages in bizarre ways. These chapters contain a series of prophetic actions that communicate God’s message in powerful, nonverbal ways.
By dramatizing God’s plan before an audience, a prophet is better able to change the people’s perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors because they can see an outcome instead of just imagining it.
When a powerful army surrounds the walls of a city, it cuts off the people’s access to their fields, animals, and water sources. If the siege lasts long enough, death is inevitable for those inside the city walls.
As the bodies pile up and hunger becomes unbearable, cannibalism may be the only way to stay alive. There is something horrid about cannibalism.
The notion that parents may be reduced to eating their children disrupts every natural impulse a parent has. But Scripture teaches that those who break God’s law and violate His holiness may be cursed with this punishment (Leviticus 26:29).
After such visual and visceral displays as representing Jerusalem on a brick and prophesying against it; lying on his side for over a year; and taking his own cut hair, burning it, and scattering it with a sword; Ezekiel must have acquired quite a reputation.
His very life becomes an object lesson and a teaching display for the Judean exiles. God is concerned about the glory of His name, so He must punish Jerusalem and the Judean population for their adulterous rebellion.
Ironically, it is in the very places where God desires to have sweet and unhindered fellowship with His people that all types of lewd, profane acts of worship transpire. If there is any confusion as to what the Eternal is planning to do, then one need look no further than Ezekiel’s daily behavior.
The elders who come to Ezekiel to hear this vision must be confused. Jerusalem, they think, has already suffered enough. Surely it will not suffer more.
But that is wishful thinking, not the prophet’s message. The subjugation of Judah to Babylon takes place over about 20 years. The Babylonians first assaulted Jerusalem in 605 B.C. and took some of the chief citizens into exile.
Then in 597 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem for 3 months, captured the city, looted the temple and palace, and deported many of the most prominent people to Babylon. The current exiles can hardly imagine anything worse, but it will happen.
In 586 B.C., Nebuchadnezzar will return to Jerusalem, and this time he will leave nothing but ashes. After a grueling 18-month siege, Nebuchadnezzar will break through Jerusalem’s wall and level it, take whatever riches he desires, burn every building (including God’s temple) to the ground, and deport what few people survive the battle.
This final battle and conquest will decimate God’s home; it will leave Jerusalem in ruins. There will be no place left for the exiles to return.
These fantastic winged creatures are the same living beings Ezekiel encounters in his initial vision (chapter 1). They serve two purposes in Scripture: accompanying the presence of God — as Ezekiel describes twice — and guarding some of God’s holiest places.
Creatures like these, of course, strike fear in anyone who sees them; their otherworldly appearance is perfect for decorating the covenant chest in the temple and guarding the way to the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:24).
The creatures’ fantastic appearance has inspired artists and craftsmen for generations. Depictions of these heavenly creatures appear all over the temple and the tabernacle; they are sewn into tapestries, engraved on walls, and used to decorate tools of worship.
Ezekiel may seem like a prophet of doom and gloom, but like most prophets he sees beyond judgment to God’s restoration of His people.
The only hope for the Judean exiles is that they be given a new heart and spirit from their Creator.
The prophet receives this optimistic message again and again. Although divine punishment is severe, divine rescue will eclipse any tragedy because God will recreate His people.
Again God calls upon Ezekiel to act out His message. These dramatic actions apply specifically to Zedekiah.
After Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem in 597 B.C., he deported Judah’s king Jehoiachin and most of the powerful citizens of the city — many of whom are now members of Ezekiel’s audience in exile.
Nebuchadnezzar then installed Zedekiah as king to represent Babylonia’s interests and guarantee Judah’s submission. But Zedekiah will rebel against Nebuchadnezzar, who will then flatten Jerusalem in 586 B.C. (a decade after Ezekiel performs this sign-act).
During that final siege, Zedekiah will do everything Ezekiel portrays here: he will attempt to escape the starving city, but he will be caught and taken to the Babylonian king.
As punishment Nebuchadnezzar will order him to be blinded and taken into captivity. Zedekiah’s fate is a warning to any other who might consider opposing Babylonia’s king.
At first glance, the naming of these three men — Noah, Daniel, and Job — seems odd. Noah and Job are, of course, central characters in the Scripture; and these heroes lived long before Ezekiel was called to be God’s prophet.
But the Daniel most people know as the biblical prophet will achieve his fame long after Ezekiel dies. The Daniel mentioned here is not the biblical prophet but another Daniel (also known as Danel) whose story is found in an ancient Ugaritic text called the Epic of Aqhat.
Like Noah and Job, Danel is an ancient non-Israelite who lives to an old age and becomes famous for his wisdom. Like Noah, he is surrounded by wicked people; like Job, he loses a son.
Perhaps God references these non-Israelite heroes — as opposed to the people’s Israelite ancestors — because Ezekiel’s audience is living outside of Israel.
They would be able to identify with the foreign cultures in these accounts because they are surrounded by the strange customs and the novel stories of Babylon.
These three men show an unusual level of devotion to God when the culture around them appears to be moving contrary to His way, so they are more appropriate examples than any Israelite ancestor — such as David, Solomon, or Josiah — who had all the benefits and blessings of God’s covenants.
To understand the comparison of Jerusalem to a harlot, knowledge of the city’s political history in the eighth, seventh, and sixth centuries B.C. is helpful.
Two political powers dominate Judah and much of the ancient Near East in this period: Egypt in the south and Assyria (which is later replaced by Babylonia) in the north and east.
Jerusalem is caught between these empires — geographically, politically, and economically. Over the centuries, power in the region shifts back and forth, and Jerusalem aligns herself with whichever country offers the most protection.
But this protection is not free; Jerusalem has to pay for it. In accepting foreign protection instead of trusting in God, Jerusalem prostitutes herself to the highest bidder, giving up everything that is valuable and sacred in exchange for eventual exile and slavery.
This parable dramatizes Babylon’s attack on Jerusalem. Nebuchadnezzar, represented by the first eagle, is indeed the largest predator in the area. He swooped into Jerusalem and exiled the young king, Jehoiachin, who was plucked from the top of the cedar tree.
Nebuchadnezzar then planted a new monarch in Jerusalem, Zedekiah, as a vassal of Babylon. Jerusalem flourishes under Zedekiah but doesn’t gain any power, just as the vine is strong but not tall.
But when Zedekiah becomes ambitious for sovereignty, he will send envoys to King Hophra in Egypt — represented by the second eagle — looking for mercenaries.
This betrayal will lead to Jerusalem’s complete destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. Since God is using Babylon to punish His disobedient people, and since Zedekiah’s betrayal will reflect badly on Him, the coming destruction is none other than divine judgment.
Again God informs Ezekiel and the exiles of the coming destruction of Jerusalem. The lioness is Judah, the young lions are the nations surrounding Judah, and the cubs are her kings.
This metaphor is appropriate since the Davidic monarchy comes from the tribe of Judah, characterized as a lion in Genesis 49:9. The first cub is Jehoahaz.
This son of the great King Josiah ruled for only three months after his father died in 609 B.C.; he was quickly captured and deported to Egypt by Pharaoh Neco when Egypt made Judah a vassal state.
The story of this cub is the historical precedent for what will happen to the second cub, Zedekiah. Prior to 586 B.C. Zedekiah fraternizes with leaders of other nations — represented by the other lions — until he will be imprisoned in Babylon by those other lions, specifically Nebuchadnezzar.
Kings never go into battle without first looking for signs and omens. War is too risky — even for Babylon — not to have the blessings of the gods. The Babylonian king stops at the crossroads: which way should he go? So he calls for his priests to consult the gods for signs.
Their mediation may be something like drawing straws. At times it involves the ancient practice of “reading” the liver of a sacrificial animal. When a king wants to make sure his decision is the correct one, he uses several forms of divination.
The ancients do not believe in chance; they believe their gods are involved in orchestrating their lives and decisions. In this case, Babylon’s king happens to be correct because the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is directing him to take the road to Jerusalem.
After King Solomon’s death, Israel splits into two kingdoms, the two sisters described in this parable. Israel is ruled from Samaria; Judah is ruled from Jerusalem. Both kingdoms are ruled autonomously until Assyria dominates Israel, forcing her to pay tribute.
Eventually the Assyrians conquer Israel in 722 B.C. and annex her land. Throughout this struggle, the various kings of Israel turn for help to everyone they can — everyone, that is, except God.
Israel’s last cry for help is raised to Egypt in the 730s B.C. by her last king, Hoshea (2 Kings 17:4). Unfortunately, surviving historical records are incomplete, and what happens next is unclear. But in the end, Egypt proves to be no help to Israel.
This memorable allegory traces the fate of two sisters who represent the two capital cities of Israel and Judah: Samaria and Jerusalem.
The graphic portrayals of their sexual exploits are some of the most disturbing in Scripture; they highlight the disgust God and His prophet must feel toward God’s wayward people.
Anyone who hears Ezekiel speak this message must come to the same conclusion: God must judge His unfaithful wives. It is right. It is just. It is necessary.
Israel and Judah are not the only nations infuriating God with their conduct. The surrounding countries — Ammon in the northeast, Moab in the east, Edom in the southeast, Philistia in the west, and Tyre in the northwest — have often been at odds with Israel and Judah.
So when Judah falls, they celebrate in the streets and begin to figure how they might maneuver around these political and economic changes. Judah’s fall might be a windfall for them.
As the Judean exiles are forcibly marched out of their land, their neighbors mercilessly mock them for their crushing defeat.
But God takes all of this very personally. He will not tolerate their disrespect of His people, which amounts to disrespect of Him too. So God takes His own revenge and punishes those who delight in Israel’s and Judah’s tragedies.
Tyre’s troubles start not long after Judah is destroyed in 586 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar marches there and begins a siege that lasts for almost 13 years.
The part of the city on the mainland is captured by Nebuchadnezzar, but the princes of Tyre continue to rule from their island palace for another two centuries.
In 332 B.C. Alexander the Great will use the rubble of the mainland city to construct a bridge to the island. Soon the island of Tyre will be in ruins, as it will remain forever.
Because of Tyre’s location off the coast, she receives daily supplies and survives a long war; therefore, her ruler, Ethbaal III, has every human reason to be confident. Such confidence and wickedness is bred into him:
Ethbaal’s ancestor, Ethbaal I, was a priest of their goddess Astarte and seized the throne for himself. He was a powerful prince, making political connections and spreading the worship of his goddess all over the region.
Ethbaal I’s daughter, Jezebel, was famous for entrenching pagan worship in Israel, so Tyre is indirectly the root of Israel’s wickedness.
The prince of Tyre’s biography echoes the creation story. Adam, too, is described as a perfect and honored creation of God, given guardianship of the earth and full access to God. Expelled from paradise, wickedness becomes entrenched and spreads until God is forced to execute His judgment.
The prophet directs his oracle against Pharaoh, but in reality the pharaoh represents all of the people. Pharaoh’s audacious claim that he created the Nile stands in clear contradiction to the fact that Israel’s God created the heavens and the earth.
So God becomes his enemy, fishes the great river monster out of the river — the lifeline of Egypt — and leaves his body as food for the animals and birds of the desert.
The “monster” could refer either to the Nile crocodile — a symbol of the Pharaoh’s power — or the mythical creature of chaos who opposes God but is ultimately defeated by Him.
The other fishes clinging to his scales appear to represent all those who depend on Pharaoh, including the Egyptian people and those foolish enough to align with them.
Egypt is the last in this series of oracles against the nations. The imagery is just as profound and poetically graphic as in the other oracles. The terror of Tyre and Sidon’s defeat is fresh on the minds of Jerusalem’s citizens, and they wonder, what else will Nebuchadnezzar do to the Egyptians and their forces?
The prophet has the answer. Like a locust hopping from city to city, the Babylonian army will move from the northern capital, Memphis (in lower Egypt), to the southern capital, Thebes (in upper Egypt).
God proclaims through His living example, Ezekiel, that He has put His sword in Nebuchadnezzar’s hand to punish Egypt. If Egypt with all its history and splendor will fall to Babylonia, what chance do other nations have?
In Ezekiel’s day the Israelites believe that after death, all people go down to the pit, often called “Sheol.” The Hebrew word comes from a root that means “to ask a question” because no one knows exactly what happens on the other side.
The afterlife remains an open question for Ezekiel’s contemporaries. The Bible describes it as a dark, shadowy place, located perhaps in the lowest regions of the earth.
It stands in sharp contrast to the descriptions Jesus’ apostles will give of heaven and hell later in the New Testament.
The Scriptures do not reveal everything at once. They invite the reader to keep digging and keep seeking to find answers.
The fall of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. must confound Ezekiel. While he is, of course, devastated by the destruction of his homeland and the deaths of his countrymen, their defeat vindicates him and his life’s work.
Everyone now knows that Ezekiel is a true prophet of God, and his years of suffering to bring his fellow exiles God’s message are rewarded by the people fawning over him.
Unfortunately, the people’s sudden attention to Ezekiel’s words is akin to a person’s adoration of his favorite entertainer. They love to be in his presence, but they take him no more seriously than they ever have. Ezekiel’s popularity will be short-lived.
After God declares His opposition to the shepherd-rulers who neglected and exploited their human flock, God pledges to get involved personally. He will search for the lost sheep, return the strays, and care for them tenderly back in the beautiful land of Israel, the land of promise.
But in God’s human flock are trouble and competition. Even as God lovingly supplies His flock with plenty of good food, clear water, and pleasant pastures, some trample what they can’t control and foul what they can’t consume. Some bully and push their weight around, while others move aside or run for the hills.
Again God sees the problem and promises to step in, personally, to rescue His hassled people and put an end to injustice. So God promises to send another shepherd-ruler, in the spirit of King David, who will love and care for the flock as God Himself does.
This Davidic shepherd will be unlike the wicked, neglectful shepherd-rulers in Israel’s past; this son of David will rule as their prince in submission to Israel’s one True God.
But there is more. In the final movement of this oracle, God announces a new covenant — a covenant of peace. Its scope is beyond human community and politics. It is a renewal of life in the land of Israel and, by extension, in the rest of creation.
Israel has no more implacable enemy than Edom. As the descendants of Esau, whose brother Jacob stole his birthright and his father’s blessing, the Edomites view the Israelites as illegitimate rulers and thieves.
So shortly after Nebuchadnezzar razes Jerusalem in 586 B.C., Edom seizes its opportunity for revenge and swoops in to fill the political vacuum that results.
The Edomites are not operating as God’s instruments. They attack Israel out of their own greed, thinking no one is left to oppose them. They are wrong. The land of Israel never belongs to the people themselves; it belongs to God.
When the Edomites sneak in to pillage the land of Israel, they find the stewards of the land gone or severely weakened, but the true Owner is at home and is ready to prosecute them for their actions.
This oracle may be one of the best known in Ezekiel’s prophecy. God’s promise of a new heart and a new spirit echoes Jeremiah’s new covenant prophecy ( Jeremiah 31:31-34 ).
What God’s people need more than anything is for God to do a work of grace within them. Like other prophets of his day, Ezekiel is convinced that heaven must intervene in order to fix what is wrong on earth. It is not enough for people to try harder and do better.
This work of grace begins with God cleansing His people with fresh water. Idolatry and various sins have made them impure and unclean, so before they can be restored, they must be made pure by the washing of water.
Then, once God gives them a new heart, His people will become willing covenant partners; they will give up on their rebellious, hurtful ways and embrace God’s designs for their lives. With a new spirit — which seems to be nothing other than God’s Spirit living in and among them — they will have the desire and ability to live out God’s reasonable demands on them.
God insists that all He intends to do to save and redeem His people is not for their good; He is working to restore His good name. God’s covenant people have given Him a bad reputation among the nations, so God must act in His own interest to make sure His name is given the honor it is due.
How could David be the king of Israel’s new nation? He died 500 years earlier! Certainly God does not mean that David comes back from the dead to reign; He means that David is the archetype for the eternal king.
This new king will carry David’s name because He will be a descendant of David. He will rule a united kingdom just as David ruled a united Israel in his day. He, too, will be a shepherd of God’s people.
These hopes and aspirations will remain in the psyche of God’s people for hundreds of years. When Jesus begins His ministry, His followers will be certain they have found the good shepherd.
The Lord’s slaughter of Gog and his forces serves two purposes. Obviously, it reminds Israel and the other nations of God’s ultimate power, but more importantly, it solidifies His new covenant with Israel.
In ancient Israel, when two people made a covenant with one another, they would slaughter an animal, cut it in half, lay the two halves parallel to each other on the ground, and walk between them. This action indicated, “If I break this covenant, then you may do this to me.”
The covenant partners would then share a meal together. In this case, God makes Gog’s armies the sacrifice that establishes His covenant with Israel. He, of course, will never break the covenant, and He warns Israel that He could destroy them if they abandon Him again.
The description and measurements of the new temple are both complex and staggering. The outer walls form a square with priestly kitchens for preparing sacrifices and food on each corner. On the four sides of the temple complex, a total of thirty chambers line the perimeter wall.
The actual temple and inner courtyard is a smaller version of the outer walls, three gates (east, north, and south), and outer courtyard.
As Ezekiel walks in a westerly direction from the outer east gate, he ascends a set of stairs that leads to the outer courtyard where he then goes up another staircase to the inner courtyard and altar where he then finds a third staircase leading to the temple portico and the two holy and most holy chambers of the Eternal’s sanctuary.
Ezekiel’s mysterious tour guide first begins at the eastern outer gate facing the rising sun.
Then he takes Ezekiel to the outer courtyard where he measures the north gate before taking him to the south gate for its measurements.
They then enter the inner courtyard via its south gate. Now at the inner courtyard, they follow the same path of measuring the east and north gates.
Finally, after exiting the north gate of the inner courtyard, they move to the original east gate of the outer courtyard where Ezekiel witnesses the awesome return of the Eternal’s presence.
The measuring reed is a long cubit, at 20 to 21 inches, rather than a short cubit at 18 inches. The sheer grandeur of this new temple and city and its surrounding land — along with its most prominent, divine dweller — calls for nothing less than royal measurements.
Now Ezekiel is at the outer porch or nave of the actual temple structure. He watches as the man measures the holy place and then proceeds deeper into the recesses of the most holy place. Ezekiel cannot enter these areas because he is not one of the “sons of Zadok” ( 40:46 ).
Ezekiel’s descriptions of the Jerusalem temple are often difficult to comprehend. Since Jerusalem’s temple was completely destroyed, archaeology is helpful in reconstructing Ezekiel’s description of it.
In Northern Syria lie the ruins of a temple at ‘Ain Dara‘ that closely resemble the biblical descriptions of God’s temple. It, too, had three rooms, winged beings guarding the holiest place, and an eastern gate through which a deity entered.
But what might be the most helpful parallel between it and Jerusalem’s temple are its windows. Carved into the stone are false windows, each with three successively smaller window frames — the largest frame on the outside and the smallest on the inside.
Apparently this architectural detail was popular in ornate Near Eastern buildings during the first millennium B.C., especially in temples, and it sheds light on Ezekiel’s obscure description.
Burnt offerings are arguably the most important sacrifices and the centerpiece of the temple practices. They are performed every morning and evening without fail, at every festival holiday, and by individuals for various personal reasons.
The burnt offerings differ from other offerings because they are totally consumed in the fire. No meat is left over to serve the priests and Levites or to be the main course in a festival meal; everything is offered up to God.
The burnt offerings attract God’s attention to the temple because they rise up to heaven with a pleasing aroma. Before the people can begin their steady stream of offerings to God, the altar itself must be consecrated to Him.
Ezekiel’s vision of the land of Israel once the Jews return from exile has several significant features:
Each tribe receives a similar allotment of land, the rulers are given property of their own (so the tribes don’t have to support them), the temple is situated in the exact center of the country, and the priests and Levites all live around the temple itself (instead of being scattered among the tribes).
These changes in the nation’s political and social structure reflect many of the changes that take place during the exile.
The distribution of land to resident aliens is a marked change in Israelite custom. Prior to the exile, foreigners and outsiders had a special status among the Israelites.
They were considered members of the community, participating in civic (though not governmental) activities, allowed to worship at the temple in a restricted capacity, and protected under God’s law.
Leviticus 19 explains that Israelites were to love their foreign neighbors, treating them with special care because they were disadvantaged — as widows and orphans were — because they were not allowed to own land in Israel and therefore often couldn’t provide for themselves. But God’s new law changes this.
For the first time, resident aliens who adopt the worship of Israel’s God may legally join with the tribes and enjoy all of God’s blessings in Israel.
This only makes sense for the exiles who return to the land from all over the world and have difficulty proving their Israelite heritage.
As generous as this law may seem, it is not the first instance of God’s grace to those outside Israel; His kindness is demonstrated over and over again in the pages of Scripture.
The very monarchy of Israel is descended from a resident alien, Ruth, the grandmother of King David. Certainly God loves equally all who know and worship Him.
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