The Agora
Bible Commentary

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Ecclesiastes 4

Ecc 4:1

Ecc 4: Human futility greatly increased by oppression.

Ecc 4:1-8 describes the emptiness of many who make it to "the top". This is not a plea for mediocrity in and of itself: it IS possible to be successful and happy -- but it is difficult. The problem with the people described here soon becomes clear; they have no fear of the Lord. They have lost sight of God, and for all practical purposes they have no God (Psa 14:1; 53:1) -- because, whatever faith they might profess to others, it is a sham, and they act as though God does not exist!

For people like this, indifference to others -- and finally tyranny and abuse of others -- may become a way of life. Since they view people as pawns, or rungs in the ladder of success, it's easy for the powerful to become abusive.

Sadly, those whom they oppress often have no one to help or comfort them (v 1). Their lot is so painful that the observer concludes that the dead or unborn are better off than the oppressed. If all of this sounds familiar, it's because these verses capture much of the history of the human race.

That's why those who strive for success must also strive for compassion. "Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you... Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter" (Jam 5:1,4,5): remember your Maker, and listen to Him before it's too late!

Another reason many successful people feel empty is that their success has been driven by envy of others (v 4); they see others as competitors to be beaten rather than as companions to be embraced. It isn't easy to make friends under those conditions. That's why those who strive for success must also strive for companionship.

The overachiever can also feel empty because success may bring with it a pack of problems he hadn't expected. For these people, the advice in v 6 is worth heeding: "Better one handful with tranquillity than two handfuls with toil and chasing after the wind." That's why those who strive for success must also strive for contentment. Pause along the way to smell the flowers. Look around you; look up. Put things in perspective. Remember the One who has truly given you all your blessings!

So the final picture in this section (vv 7,8) is a sad one: a "successful" person -- like the fabled Scrooge -- alone with his money. Yet his loneliness and frustration drive him even harder: "There was no end to his toil, yet his eyes were not content with his wealth. 'For whom am I toiling,' he asked, 'and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?' This too is meaningless -- a miserable business!" A person like that needs help! That's why those who strive for success must also strive for cessation -- knowing when enough is enough... and knowing that "a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions" (Luk 12:15). As Charles Dickens saw and expressed so profoundly, the wealth hoarded for self-indulgence turns at last into chains that bind and imprison!

Lord, deliver us from the miserable business of money-grubbing; teach us how to trust in You alone.

Vv 1-3: "Wrongs, injustice, and oppression. These are basic characteristics of the way of man. There is no worthwhile happiness or satisfaction to be wrought within the limits of this framework.

"All natural human activities not related to the divine purpose are futile and vain, like sand castles on the seashore, for the great tide of oppression and injustice and wickedness in power keeps flowing over them and sweeping them away" (GVG).

I SAW THE TEARS OF THE OPPRESSED -- AND THEY HAVE NO COMFORTER; POWER WAS ON THE SIDE OF THEIR OPPRESSORS -- AND THEY HAVE NO COMFORTER: How could a reigning king see such abuses in his kingdom and lament the fact, and then do nothing about it? But if, like Uzziah, he was without power at the time, such an observation makes sense (cp Ecc 3:16, from which the same point may be deduced).

NO COMFORTER: This lament is repeated here, as though to emphasize the woeful lack of one to help, or relieve the suffering. Cp other similar laments in Neh 5:1-5; Pro 14:31; Amo 3:9,10; Job 35:9-12; Lam 1:2,9,16,17; Psa 69:20.

The poor and the helpless have been long oppressed in this world, "under the sun". And they have had no comforter. But there is a Comforter for the having! He is the one who was himself "oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken" (Isa 53:7,8). In his oppression -- and in his death and resurrection -- he provides comfort for those who are themselves oppressed: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls" (Mat 11:28,29).

Surely this is part of the story; in fact, it IS the story! But we are anticipating THIS story if we dwell overmuch on this final aspect of it. Qoheleth, seeing the world from his perspective and in his own time, must lay stress on the oppression itself -- not on the One who will relieve the oppressed. And we must go with him there, to see the hovels of the poor, and the tears they shed, to enter into that suffering, and to feel that -- "under the sun" -- there is truly no hope, and no comfort. Only then, after sufficient preparation, and sufficient experience, may we come gladly to know and appreciate the true Comforter. This is the Biblical order of things.

Ecc 4:2

AND I DECLARED THAT THE DEAD, WHO HAD ALREADY DIED, ARE HAPPIER THAN THE LIVING, WHO ARE STILL ALIVE: The AV translation is better here: "I praised the dead", rather than "the dead... are happier than the living". Nothing in this verse suggests a continuing conscious existence beyond the grave. Rather, the dead are more blessed than the living -- who must continue under a brutal oppression -- because their struggles are past, and they may rest in the graves. Cp the idea in Rev 6:9-11: the "souls" (by which is meant the shed blood: cp again Gen 4:10) under God's altar, whose "blood" metaphorically cries out to the LORD, but they are told to rest and wait a little longer, until God's redemptive work is finished. And in Rev 14:13: "Then I heard a voice from heaven say, 'Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.' 'Yes,' says the Spirit, 'they will rest from their labor [ie, until the Resurrection], for their deeds will follow them.' "

Ecc 4:3

BUT BETTER THAN BOTH IS HE WHO HAS NOT YET BEEN, WHO HAS NOT SEEN THE EVIL THAT IS DONE UNDER THE SUN: With this may be compared the despairing words of the long-suffering Job: "May the day of my birth perish, and the night it was said, 'A boy is born!'... Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?... For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest" (Job 3:3-22). And other words of Qoheleth: "A man may have a hundred children and live many years; yet no matter how long he lives, if he cannot enjoy his prosperity and does not receive proper burial, I say that a stillborn child is better off than he" (Ecc 6:3-5). Cp also Jer 20:18. But it may be suggested that none of these exaggerated expressions of grief and depression should be taken literally -- they are what they are: cries of overwrought minds which have pushed to the breaking point by circumstances over which they have no control, minds which for a moment at least have forgotten, or have set aside, the knowledge of an overseeing Divine Presence, which can and will set all things right in due time.

Other such expressions, however, may be taken more literally: "For the time will come when you will say, 'Blessed are the barren women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!' " (Luk 23:29).

Ecc 4:4

ALL LABOR AND ALL ACHIEVEMENT SPRING FROM MAN'S ENVY OF HIS NEIGHBOR: Or, probably better, "all labor and all achievement" CAUSE envy in others. As the AV, "FOR THIS a man is envied of his neighbour." Either point may be true: men may be driven by envy, or they may be the victims of other men's envy, or both. They may in fact oppress others (vv 1-3) in order to achieve their ends. Generally, cp Pro 14:30 and 1Co 3:1,3.

"First, the Preacher observes the frustrating fact that someone who works hard and does the right thing is the object of envy on the part of others -- even by those who would probably acknowledge diligence as a virtue. Envy lies behind much human achievement and toil; competitiveness and jealousy spark the desire to outdo the other. This raises the question whether diligence and hard work are quite so praiseworthy after all! Who wants to be the constant victim of envious workmates?" (MV).

ALL ACHIEVEMENT: This is translated "every RIGHT work" in the AV -- as if to bring God into the picture again. But even "right" work -- even if it is "right" -- is, in the end, meaningless... at least insofar as it truly changes the world for the better! Why is this? Because it is done in a world which, by and large, exists "under the sun" (vv 3,7, etc).

Ecc 4:5

THE FOOL FOLDS HIS HANDS AND RUINS HIMSELF: Cp Pro 6:9-11; 24:33. We move along from the "rat race" of the upwardly mobile, with its hectic scramble for status symbols, to the drop-out with his drugs (if he can afford them!) and his total indifference. On the basis of the previous observation [v 4], one might decide that it is better not to be over-diligent -- because at least this prevents being envied by others. But, as v 5 tells us, the downside to such a position is that a lazy person will not be able to feed himself and will end up "eating his own flesh" (AV).

AND RUINS HIMSELF: Most English versions render the idiom literally: "and eats", or "consumes his flesh" (KJV, NASB, RSV). However, a few versions attempt to explain the idiom: "and lets life go to ruin" (Moffatt), "and wastes away" (NEB), "and ruins himself" (NIV).

The phrase may suggest being eaten up with laziness, or even with envy (ie v 4). Or living off one's relatives. Or, perhaps, "eating one's own substance" -- ie, the grain for planting, or other goods which should have been put aside, until all is gone. "He is the picture of complacency and unwitting self-destruction, for this comment on him points out a deeper damage than the wasting of his capital. His idleness eats away not only what he has but what he is: eroding his self-control, his grasp of reality, his capacity for care and, in the end, his self-respect" (Kidner). Also cp Pro 15:16,17; 24:27-34; Amo 4:6; Eph 4:28; 2Th 3:10-13.

Ecc 4:6

BETTER ONE HANDFUL WITH TRANQUILITY THAN TWO HANDFULS WITH TOIL AND CHASING AFTER WIND: Thus there are disadvantages in being too diligent (v 4) and disadvantages in being too lazy (v 5). V 6 now balances these two statements by saying it is better to find the middle road in one's efforts: it is better to have a handful with quietness (free from stress and the jealousy and antagonism of others) than it is to work one's hardest and have both hands full.

"We observe, then, that neither of the first two statements [vv 4,5] say precisely of themselves what the Preacher wants to say, nor do they contain the whole truth on the matter. Looking only at the second observation [v 5], for instance, one could say that the best thing to do was to work as hard as one possibly could so that one always had plenty to eat. And yet the first observation [v 4] says that this is not such a good idea because others will be jealous if that is what one does -- not to mention the fact that one may end up with more stress than one can cope with [v 6]. Nor does the first observation [v 4] say it all; it is by placing the two side by side and by reaching a balanced conclusion [v 6] that it is possible to achieve a useful perspective on this issue" (MV).

TOIL AND CHASING AFTER THE WIND: The restless ambition to build gigantic industrial and business empires. See 1Ti 6:9.

"The saying brings up a mental picture of a greedy and anxious man with both hands full, unwilling to drop a morsel of that which he has grasped, and yet with no hand at liberty to enable him to make use of his gains. This is the position of many ambitious mortals. Perhaps the majority of experienced people would assent to the preacher's words, and yet there seems to be an almost universal urge to fill both hands and still ask for more. All through its history humanity has been cursed by this lust for possession. Men have been rendered destitute and lands have been made desolate to gratify the ambitions of conquerors without the successful tyrant finding satisfaction in all the spoil that he has gained. Alexander was not satisfied when he had conquered the world. If he escaped the full share of travail and vexation due to him it was because he died in the early prime of life" (CEcc).

For the virtue of contentment, see Pro 15:16,17; Mat 6:31-34; 1Ti 6:8; Heb 13:5; Phi 4:11.

Ecc 4:7

AGAIN I SAW: Or, as AV, "then I returned" -- indicating a change of perspective, and a new subject once again. Having considered the emptiness and frustration of jealous rivalry, and the futility of indolence, the Preacher now turns to consider the sad spectacle of the short-sighted, selfish, avaricious person -- the miser (v 8).

Ecc 4:8

THERE WAS A MAN ALL ALONE; HE HAD NEITHER SON NOR BROTHER: Lit, "there is one and there is not a second." The seeming despair when contemplating the next generation is reminiscent of Ecc 2:18-21 (see notes there). This circumstance may particularly suit Uzziah, who would have lived beyond the onset of his leprosy, to see the death of his son Jotham, who had succeeded him on the throne.

THERE WAS A MAN ALL ALONE; HE HAD NEITHER SON NOR BROTHER. THERE WAS NO END TO HIS TOIL, YET HIS EYES WERE NOT CONTENT WITH HIS WEALTH: This man labored long and hard and deprived himself of good without knowing why. He had no brother, he had no son. There was no one to leave his wealth to, yet he was never satisfied with the things he gathered. His life was spent in a pointless effort to gather and heap up more and more. The great irony is that -- in contrast to the situation in vv 1-3 -- this man is his own oppressor! His obsession is a power that drives him into an early grave. He is his own worst enemy.

THERE WAS NO END TO HIS TOIL, YET HIS EYES WERE NOT CONTENT WITH HIS WEALTH. "FOR WHOM AM I TOILING,' HE ASKED, "AND WHY AM I DEPRIVING MYSELF OF ENJOYMENT?": Cp Christ's parable of the rich fool in Luk 12:16-21. This man, a miser, has no room for friendship for he does not reflect that loving and kindly disposition that gains friends. Instead of using his fortune wisely, he hoards it; this causes his heart to despair. The pursuit and preoccupation of wealth does not satisfy, and draws us away from God, And so Jesus states in Mat 16:26: "What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?" The Mammon man who loses his soul, or his life, is so bound up with his wealth that he severs his connection with those around him and their activities. Jesus again said in relation to this kind of attitude, "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also" (Mat 6:21).

Ecc 4:9

Vv 9-12: Material aims (vv 6,8...) without friendship are futile toil. After considering the dismal life of the lonely miser (v 8), Qoheleth illustrates the advantages of friendship and companionship.

TWO ARE BETTER THAN ONE: Thus Jesus sends the disciples out by twos: Luk 10:1. And those who went about preaching the gospel traveled in pairs (Paul and Barnabas, Paul and Silas, Barnabas and Mark), and sometimes larger groups. Though general, this may also be a reference to marriage: "The LORD God said, 'It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him' " (Gen 2:18).

THEY HAVE A GOOD RETURN FOR THEIR WORK: Two working together can often accomplish more than the same two can working separately -- sometimes an extra pair of hands, or an extra perspective on a problem, can surmount a problem that might stymie one person. "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Pro 27:17).

Ecc 4:10

IF ONE FALLS DOWN, HIS FRIEND CAN HELP HIM UP. BUT PITY THE MAN WHO FALLS AND HAS NO ONE TO HELP HIM UP!: Two men are on a journey in a distant land; often the way is fraught with perils. If one falls into a pit, then the other is there to lift him out, or perhaps even to go for help. But if a single man, like the lonely and loveless miser of v 8, falls into such a pit, he may very well perish there -- for no one will know of his plight.

The same may be true of individuals in ecclesial life. "Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal 6:1,2; cp Job 4:4; Jam 5:14). But the man, or woman, who walks alone may have no one who is even aware of his or her spiritual problem, and no one to offer a gentle helping hand -- when a moral crisis looms, or an overwhelming temptation or trial pushes the believer to the brink. It is good to have those who know our faults and our weaknesses. They can help us through the times when we fall and when we fail. When we need rebuke, their words may wound us, but we know they are our faithful friends, and only desire to help us (Pro 27:6).

Ecc 4:11

ALSO, IF TWO LIE DOWN TOGETHER, THEY WILL KEEP WARM: In cultures other than our own, people of the same sex will often sleep together for the sake of warmth -- with no hint of impropriety such as we might feel: cp the "two people in one bed" of Luk 17:34. In times of crisis, this lesson may be driven home to us...

"Some years ago four friends of mine climbed a mountain (three brethren and one sister -- she being the wife of one of the brethren). There was nothing unusual in this, for they were all experienced mountain climbers, who enjoyed the exhilaration of the climb associated with that special sense of nearness to God and His handiwork that only mountain climbers can understand!

"But on this occasion something went wrong. They probably started their climb a little late anyway, but just after they arrived at the mountain's peak, an unexpected blizzard attacked the mountain. Movement downwards was totally impossible in these conditions which continued relentlessly all night. It wasn't until the calm of morning that they were able to make their way downwards to safety.

"They arrived at ground level just as the mountain rescue team was setting off to try and find them. The rescuers were amazed that the four were still alive -- they felt that it was impossible for a human being to survive the weather conditions that had existed during the previous night. The reason they survived? When the blizzard struck they had stood very close and had then roped themselves together.

"Because they were four close together they had retained their body heat and had survived. As four separate individuals the bitter cold would have killed each of them separately.

"This true story provides me with my understanding of Ecc 4:11 -- 'If two lie together then they have heat, but how can one be warm alone?'

"Being in the wilderness or on a mountain alone is highly dangerous, but there is strength and support, and warmth, in numbers. And being alone in the spiritual wilderness is to look spiritual death in the face. But our brothers and sisters can give us the 'warmth' we need in order to survive" (Simon Hodgson).

So in this verse, and in these circumstances, the "warmth" we need may be more than physical -- it may be emotional or spiritual... someone who truly cares! In a cold, cruel, callous world, what a blessed help can he or she be! Or, as Henry puts it, "So virtuous and gracious affections are excited by good society, and Christians warm one another by provoking one another to love and to good works [Heb 10:24]."

BUT HOW CAN ONE KEEP WARM ALONE?: In Hebrew, the second "keep warm" is distinct from the first; it is an entirely different word: "yacham" may signify "to be hot" as well as the first word, but also it may mean, figuratively, to conceive (cp sw Gen 30:38,39,41; 31:10; Psa 51:5), and so in this context may suggest conjugal relations. This was surely the idea that led his servants to bring the young woman Abishag to David (1Ki 1:1,2).

Ecc 4:12

THOUGH ONE MAY BE OVERPOWERED, TWO CAN DEFEND THEMSELVES: Two men in a lonely and out-of-the-way place can take turns keeping watch. Two men traveling through a dangerous place may each watch the other's back -- so as not to be surprised by ambush. Thus two men can defend one another much more effectively than any one man can defend himself alone (cp 2Sa 10:11).

A CORD OF THREE STRANDS IS NOT QUICKLY BROKEN: In this section, up until now, all the stress has been on the two that are so much better than one. Now, almost incongruously, the writer introduces a third. If two are good, then three can be so much better! It may be that, especially now, when the two become three -- it is not by the added help of a third weak human being, but because God Himself (or His Son, as His representative) has become the "third" in the relationship. So now the writer has elevated what might have been only a natural relationship to the level of a spiritual one. Once the Divine is introduced into this friendship and companionship, now such a "cord" is surely unbreakable. Each of the two human, mortal beings can look to the Third, who wraps them round, and binds them together, and strengthens them out of all proportion above what they might have been and done by themselves.

Of course, this whole section (vv 9-12), with its emphasis on first two, and then three, becoming one -- and so helping and supporting one another in all of life's vicissitudes -- reaches its spiritual apogee in Paul's detailed development of the analogy of the One Body in 1Co 12.

"The steel cables that support suspension bridges, the ropes used to fasten boats to their moorings, and the natural fibers from which many clothes are made, consist of a collection of smaller strands of steel, hemp, cotton or silk which, during the production of the thread, have been twisted together. It is from this twisting together that the cable, rope or fiber derives much of its strength.

"In the production of cloth by the weaving process, fibers, threads or yarns are interlaced to produce a sheet of fabric. This orderly interlacing produces a strength which far outstrips that displayed by the same threads haphazardly jumbled together.

"[This] fact is easily demonstrated. A single piece of sewing cotton can be easily snapped by winding the two ends around the hands and sharply pulling the hands apart. But take three strands, twist them together and repeat the action, and the cord is more likely to remain intact and cut into the skin. The twisting, intertwining and consequent mutual support produce a cord which is not quickly or easily broken.

"The Scriptures are made up of many themes. These, like the threads in a rope or the yarn in a fabric, link together, intertwine and interlace, producing an object of strength and reliability. The product is a fabric of words which shows evidence of forethought, purpose and design. Their number, their interdependence and their mutual support result in a work which is dependable. This shows design beyond human capability, which cannot be broken and which has been recorded and preserved for a purpose -- to bring the existence, plan and glory of God to the knowledge of men and women.

"With the greatest confidence in its reliability we can put it to good use in our lives, and this framework of threads and the themes themselves provide us with an opportunity of profitable and worthwhile study" (Jim Wood).

The number three recalls to mind the recurring threes in David's list of "mighty men" (2Sa 23:9,16,18,19,23), as well as Daniel's three friends (Dan 3:16,17).

It is surely relevant here that a "cord" is the means by which someone is bound -- and implies a slavery or servitude. We were all, at one time, like slaves bound by very strong cords to King Sin -- but those cords have been broken by the only Power which is greater, and now we are bound by cords of love (2Co 5:14) to our new Master, the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 6). Such a cord as this must never be broken.

Ecc 4:13

Vv 13-16: Do these verses describe a real sequence of historical events? Possibly. Two scenarios have been advanced: (a) Could this be Uzziah looking at two pictures of himself: (1st) when he was young and under the discipline of God (2Ch 26:5), and (2nd) when, older but not wiser, he refused to be admonished (2Ch 26:18)? (b) Another possible parallel: Jeroboam the poor but wise youth (who comes not out of prison, but out of Egypt), Solomon the old but foolish king, and Rehoboam the "second", the king's successor (1Ki 11; 12).

Nevertheless, the description is rather vague, and difficult to follow: are there, for example, two people in mind, or three? (That is, it is not clear whether "the second" in v 15 refers to the young man who succeeds the old king or a second youthful successor.) A more satisfying option may after all be simply to read these verses as a parable which describes no single set of known circumstances.

BETTER A POOR BUT WISE YOUTH THAN AN OLD BUT FOOLISH KING: This verse contains an extended and inverted parallelism, wherein the poor is compared with a king; the wise is compared with a foolish person; and youth is compared with age.

WHO NO LONGER KNOWS HOW TO TAKE WARNING: The great necessity, for all who would improve themselves, is a willingness to listen and change.

Ecc 4:14

THE YOUTH MAY HAVE COME FROM PRISON TO THE KINGSHIP: Amaziah, Uzziah's father, was taken captive by Jehoash king of Israel -- along with other hostages (2Ki 14:13,14), including perhaps Uzziah the heir. Thus, Uzziah = poor but wise youth who came out of prison to reign; while Amaziah = old and foolish king whose ineptitude led to assassination (2Ki 14:17-20).

Another example of coming from prison to a position of great power: Joseph (Gen 41:39-44; Psa 105:17).

Furthermore, this could be a sort of parable, of Jesus, first shut in the "prison" of death -- then being liberated to rise to the Father's right hand, and to kingship in the Age to Come (cp Psa 2; Dan 7:13,14; Rev 5:9,10). Yet, in keeping with v 16 here, the same crowd which had praised him as he entered Jerusalem... three days later were calling for him to be crucified!

OR HE MAY HAVE BEEN BORN IN POVERTY WITHIN HIS KINGDOM: Cp, generally, Psa 113:7,8. True of both Saul of Benjamin and David of Judah.

Ecc 4:15

I SAW THAT ALL WHO LIVED AND WALKED UNDER THE SUN FOLLOWED THE YOUTH, THE KING'S SUCCESSOR: "The youth" is more literally "the second" (AV mg). The second to stand in Uzziah's place was Jotham, with whom his subjects were not pleased, and whose reign was vanity (v 16).

Ecc 4:16

THERE WAS NO END TO ALL THE PEOPLE WHO WERE BEFORE THEM: The NIV as well as the KJV may obscure the meaning. "It is better to translate, 'Numberless were the people, all, at whose head HE [not "they"} stood'. Koheleth places himself in the position of a spectator, and marks how numerous are the adherents who flock around the youthful aspirant" (Pulpit).

BUT THOSE WHO CAME LATER WERE NOT PLEASED WITH THE SUCCESSOR: See note, v 15. Early success does not guarantee later approval -- such is the unreliability of human nature, and the fickleness of public approval. "There will always be dissatisfaction with the decisions of the rulers. A king can only slice the cake into so many pieces. The obstinate ruler is at risk of being thrown out. But it is wrong to assume that his replacement will be any different in the long run, because there are constraints which prevent radical reform. The replacement probably won't do a better job than the king is doing anyway" (Bowen).

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