“Faithless Despair, Faithless Presumption, and the Call to Faithful Dependence”
September 19, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
We continue this morning with our fall series in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses is gathered with the second generation of Israel after the exodus from Egypt. They are on the edge of the promised land. And Moses is preaching to them.
This morning Moses tells the second generation the account of what happened when the previous generation, 38 years earlier, had been brought by God to the edge of the promised land.
With that in mind, we turn now to our text: Deuteronomy 1:19-43.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
Moses says: 1:19 “Then we set out from Horeb and went through all that great and terrifying wilderness that you saw, on the way to the hill country of the Amorites, as Yahweh our God commanded us. And we came to Kadesh-barnea. 20 And I said to you, ‘You have come to the hill country of the Amorites, which Yahweh our God is giving us. 21 See, Yahweh your God has set the land before you. Go up, take possession, as Yahweh, the God of your fathers, has told you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’ 22 Then all of you came near me and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us and bring us word again of the way by which we must go up and the cities into which we shall come.’ 23 The thing seemed good to me, and I took twelve men from you, one man from each tribe. 24 And they turned and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and spied it out. 25 And they took in their hands some of the fruit of the land and brought it down to us, and brought us word again and said, ‘It is a good land that Yahweh our God is giving us.’
26 “Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of Yahweh your God. 27 And you murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because Yahweh hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. 28 Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, “The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.”’ 29 Then I said to you, ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. 30 Yahweh your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you have seen how Yahweh your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ 32 Yet in spite of this word you did not believe Yahweh your God, 33 who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go.
34 “And Yahweh heard your words and was angered, and he swore, 35 ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed Yahweh!’ 37 Even with me Yahweh was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. 40 But as for you, turn, and journey into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea.’
41 “Then you answered me, ‘We have sinned against Yahweh. We ourselves will go up and fight, just as Yahweh our God commanded us.’ And every one of you fastened on his weapons of war and thought it easy to go up into the hill country. 42 And Yahweh said to me, ‘Say to them, Do not go up or fight, for I am not in your midst, lest you be defeated before your enemies.’ 43 So I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of Yahweh and presumptuously went up into the hill country. 44 Then the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do and beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah. 45 And you returned and wept before Yahweh, but Yahweh did not listen to your voice or give ear to you. 46 So you remained at Kadesh many days, the days that you remained there.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
Lord, like the psalmist,
When we think of the direction you give us through your ancient word,
we take comfort, Lord.
Let your word be now our joy and delight,
as we attend to it here in your house,
so that we would remember your revelation as we go from here, day and night,
that we may cling to and follow it.
Give us that great blessing,
of walking in your ways, by the power of your Spirit.
Grant this, we ask, in Jesus’s name. Amen
[Based on Psalm 119:52, 54-56]
Our text this morning tells us of the failure of the first exodus generation of Israel to enter the promised land.
And Moses presents that failure as two different acts of rebellion, rooted in the same problem.
Twice Moses says that Israel “rebelled against the command of Yahweh” – using the very same wording. First, in verse twenty-six, when they refused to go into the land. And then again in verse forty-three when they insisted on going into the land. It’s the same phrase in Hebrew. Moses is pointing out two forms of rebellion against God.
But then, with that, he also points to a way forward, which we will consider together.
As we come to this text, we need to remember that this story would not be news to the second exodus generation – those whom Moses is speaking to. These events happened roughly 38 years earlier. [Barker, 331] Some of Moses’s audience were children when these events occurred, but even those who were born after these events would have heard this story in some form. They knew why they grew up wandering in the desert.
In a similar way, this story isn’t news to us. It has already been recorded in Numbers 13 & 14, with more detail. We know what happened.
Moses’s point here is not to provide new information so much as it is to warn the second generation of two possible temptations they will face, and to urge them to a different way forward, in contrast to what the previous generation had done.
So let’s consider how these patterns play our in the text, and then how they play out in our lives.
So first, how do these patterns play out in the text itself, and in these exodus generations?
We begin with the first pattern of rebellion we see here: the pattern of faithless despair. We see that in verses twenty-six to thirty-three.
Before that, Moses and Israel come to Kadesh-barnea, at the edge of the promised land. They send in spies. They see that the land is good. They are reminded that God has promised to give the land to them.
And then, in verse twenty-six, Israel refuses to go in.
Why? Well, they tell us in verse twenty-eight – they say: “The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.”
The sons of the Anakim there are apparently people of unusual stature. In fact, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament commonly used in the ancient world, translates it as “giants.” [Wright, 32] They exclaim that the land is filled with giants, and impenetrable fortresses. They can’t compete with that.
It’s even more vivid in the account in Numbers. There we read the report of the spies, who said: “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” [Num 13:32-33]
There are giants in the land, with impenetrable fortresses!
And Moses doesn’t seem to contradict those facts.
The facts are not the issue. The issue is what they will do with the facts.
And Israel takes a key turn here. They begin their interpretation of the situation in verse twenty-seven with the words “Because Yahweh hated us.” … “Because Yahweh hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us.”
The rest of the sentence matters, but you could really stop at that first phrase: “Because Yahweh hated us …”
As one commentator notes: “Faithlessness results from and is expressed in faulty vision.” [Block, 76]
And what we have here is a seriously faulty vision, leading to serious faithlessness, and serious accusations against God.
“In their sin, Israel attributed to God the opposite motive for his actions” than what was actually the case. [Barker, 332] And they would hear no alternative.
When Moses urged them to a different perspective in verses twenty-nine through thirty-one, they refused to listen, as we read in verse thirty-two.
In the parallel account in Numbers 14 the tension described is even higher. There we read that the people respond to Moses by discussing the idea of calling a new leader to take them back to Egypt. And when Joshua and Caleb urge the people not to rebel, but to obey God’s call to enter the land, we read in Numbers 14:10: “Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of Yahweh appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel.”
The people were ready to kill those who urged them to obey the Lord, and God himself had to visibly show up in order to stop them.
And yet even when God visibly showed up, they still didn’t trust him. Even though they had seen what God did in Egypt – where God had defeated a much more powerful force – even after witnessing that, they would not trust him. Israel did not lack evidence. Their lack of faith was a heart issue – a spiritual issue. [Block, 72]
They looked at the challenge before them, and concluded that God must hate them.
In response to their faithless accusations and rebellion, God, in his mercy, did not revoke his promise or his covenant from Israel as a whole, but he did declare that that generation would not receive its fulfillment. The gift of the land would instead go to the next generation. [Wright, 31]
They had brought suffering and destruction on their own heads.
And they’d also brought trials on others. We might be confused by verse thirty-seven. After all, God’s exclusion of Moses from the promised land came much later than Israel’s refusal to enter the land, and it was based on Moses’s actions. So how could Moses say in verse thirty-seven that he was kept from entering the land on their account?
Daniel Block helps solve this for us. “The answer,” he writes, “is actually quite simple. If the Israelites had trusted Yahweh at Kadesh Barnea and entered the land at his command, the event recorded in Numbers 20 [in which Moses sinned] would never have occurred.” [Block, 73-74]
Moses was responsible for his actions. But Israel, in their sin, created the trials and the temptations, that later provided the opportunity for Moses’s own sin. Rebellion against God doesn’t usually just hurt us. It hurts others as well.
In their faithless despair, the first exodus generation believed a terrible lie about God, they rebelled against God, and they brought trouble and suffering on themselves and on others.
That is the pattern of faithless despair.
But shockingly, this generation does not end their rebellion there. In the verses that follow they switch to another form of rebellion and faithlessness – they switch to faithless presumption.
We see this pattern in verses forty-one through forty-five. The first generation hears the judgment that will come to them, and they panic. And then they swing to what looks like the opposite response, though, in the end, its root is the same. After a superficial confession, Israel takes matters into their own hands, and from the middle of verse forty-one, Moses writes: “And every one of you fastened on his weapons of war and thought it easy to go up into the hill country. And Yahweh said to me, ‘Say to them, do not go up or fight, for I am not in your midst, lest you be defeated before your enemies.’ So I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of Yahweh and presumptuously went up into the hill country. Then the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do and beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah. And you returned and wept before Yahweh.”
Here Israel follows a very different course of action, but the common thread is that once again, in a lack of faith, they neglect their utter dependance on Yahweh.
“We ourselves will go up and fight” we read in verse forty-one. They “thought it easy” we read after that. And though God said to them in verse forty-two “Do not go up or fight, for I am not in your midst” still, they described what they were doing as acting “just as Yahweh our God commanded us.”
And the fatal flaw was to think that they could go out to fight without God with them. Their willingness to go, after he had said that, shows their lack of dependence on him, and their sin of faithless presumption – rebelling against God by ignoring him, and deciding that they could do on their own what he told them they could only do with him. [Wright, 31; Block, 74 n.10]
And in their rebellion and their faithless presumption, Israel once again fails. They are defeated. Even though we can assume that they went out with the same military numbers then that God had commanded them to go out with a few verses earlier, still they were utterly defeated. Because they went out without God’s help. And they were never going to defeat their enemies without God. Only through him was victory possible. [Wright, 31-32]
And so, in the first generation we see first the pattern of faithless despair, and then we see the pattern of faithless presumption.
Finally, we see the alternative path that God’s people were called to instead.
And what we see is that God’s people are called to faithful dependence on the Lord, rooted in a vision that looks back to see God’s past care, and then looks forwards in faith, trusting that God will keep his promises.
Let me say that again: God’s people are called to faithful dependence on the Lord, rooted in a vision that looks back to see God’s past care, and then looks forwards in faith, trusting that God will keep his promises.
And we see this pattern in three places in our text.
First, we see it in Moses. Moses points them back. First, he reminds them of what God did in Egypt, bringing plagues on the powerful nation to deliver Israel, all of which, Moses says to them in verse thirty, was done “before your eyes.” [v.30] Then he points them to God’s care for them in the wilderness so far – his protection of them in the “great and terrifying wilderness” as he calls it in verse nineteen, where, he says to them in verse thirty-one, “you have seen how Yahweh your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.” God had shown his fatherly care for Israel in the past salvation he had given them. How then could they doubt his future care and deliverance?
It was true that the giants and the fortifications in the land looked insurmountable. But so had Egypt. So had the Red Sea and the wilderness. Yet God had overcome those enemies and obstacles. He had kept his promises in the past. And so they should go forward, into the land, trusting that God would continue to keep his promises in the future.
Granted, God’s promises did not mean that things would be easy. God was not promising Israel ease if they just believed. But he was promising them ultimate success. He was promising them a place, and final victory, and a central role in God’s work in the world. Some of them would die in battle, even with God’s presence and help. But they would die in his care, and receive their reward, and would have played the part God had called them to in his great mission in the world.
God had carried them in the past like a father carrying his son. They should trust his fatherly care and go forward to what God had called them to, confident in his promises.
And in Caleb and Joshua we see what that looks like. They are mentioned just in passing in verses thirty-six and thirty-eight, but in Numbers 14 they urge the people, saying: “do not fear the people of the land, for they are bread for us. Their protection is removed from them, and Yahweh is with us; do not fear them.” [14:9]
Moses and Caleb and Joshua show us that faith in the face of serious challenges is possible. It is possible to move forward in humble dependence on the Lord, despite the giants, despite the fortified cities. And the way to do it is by remembering God’s past faithfulness and his current promises.
We see that in Moses. We see that in Cable and Joshua. But we see it most of all in the second exodus generation. That is the generation of Israel that Moses is speaking to in his words here in Deuteronomy chapter one.
And we should note a couple things about the relationship between this second generation that Moses is speaking to, and the first generation that Moses is speaking about.
First of all, Moses stresses that they are deeply connected. And we see this by his use of the word “you.” [Barker, 331; Wright, 29]
Remember, Moses is speaking to the second generation – they were all under the age of twenty or unborn when these events played out. The first generation that made this decision is now dead. And yet, Moses looks at the second generation and speaks to them as if they had done it. In verse 20 he says: “I said to you”. Verse 22: “Then all of you came near me and said” Verse 26: “Yet you would not go up” Verse 27: “And you murmured” Verse 32: “Yet in spite of this word you did not believe Yahweh your God” Verse 43: “You would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of Yahweh and presumptuously went up”
Moses speaks of the connection between the second generation and the first by speaking of them as a unified body.
But at the same time, he also speaks of them as distinct from the first generation. In verse thirty-nine Moses quotes God’s words to the first generation. He said to them: “as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it.”
All those standing before Moses as he preached this sermon were part of those described as a separate second generation – they were either under twenty-years-old when these things happened, or they had not yet been born.
And so Moses also makes a distinction between them and the first generation.
What should we take from all this?
First, Moses, in stressing the second generation’s solidarity and corporate unity with the first generation, is reminding them that they can make the same mistake. They too are capable of responding in faithless despair or faithless presumption.
Second, by distinguishing between the generations, Moses is holding out to them a call to something different, and reminding them that something different is possible.
Third, Moses is reiterating the promise God has made to give them the land – a promise that was not just made to Israel in general, but which was specifically given now, to this second generation in verse thirty-nine.
And fourth, Moses was again encouraging them to look back, and see God’s past care, and then go forward, following God’s calling in dependent faith on the Lord, trusting that he will keep his promises.
In that way, this whole text is written on the premise that such faithful dependence on the Lord is possible.
And so, in our text, when faced with giants and enemy fortresses, there is a temptation to faithless despair or faithless presumption – both of which are rooted in a false memory of what God has done, and a refusal to depend on him in trust. Instead, God calls us to look back, and to rightly remember God’s past care, and then he calls us to step forward in faithful dependance on him.
That is what we see in our text.
And we see that same pattern – those same temptations and that same calling – in a variety of places in our lives. We see those same dynamics on a cosmic level, on a personal level, and on an ecclesiastical level (on the level of the church).
First, let’s consider how this plays out on the cosmic level.
And if you are a Christian, a good way to start evaluating how you relate to the cosmic challenge is to ask: How much time do you spend thinking about Christ’s second coming? When you see the brokenness and the evil of this world, how often is your response something like “But you know what? Christ will come back, and when he does, he will defeat all of this.”?
In our thinking, we have a tendency to reduce Christ’s kingdom and his reign to our hearts or our minds. Christ is at work in us, but we don’t expect much of him in the world. Christ helps us emotionally, but once we turn outward, it’s up to us.
Which will lead us either to faithless despair in the world, or faithless presumption.
Because the world is filled with giants, and enemy fortresses. And when we see them, the temptation is either to despair, because we seem like grasshoppers when compared to the problems around us, or to think it an easy thing to fix this world, and grasp at a quick worldly solution that we think will make all things right.
When you look out at the world, where do you most clearly see the brokenness and the darkness? Where do you see the giants and the enemy fortresses? And when you see them, and they make you feel small, what do you tend to do? Do you look to a man-made solution and place your trust there, like the Israelites did when they strapped on their swords and thought it an easy thing to go into the hill country? Do you despair, and withdraw, and doubt God’s goodness and care, like the Israelites when they declared that it was because Yahweh hated them that he brought them to that place?
Our calling instead is to faithful dependence on the Lord, rooted in a vision that looks back to see God’s past care, and then looks forwards in faith, trusting that God will keep his promises.
Looking back, we are reminded that Christ has come. He has entered this world, drawing close to us, and taking on our sin and suffering so that we might be redeemed. If he has really done that, then how could we doubt his love?
Looking back, we are also reminded how in his first coming, Christ showed his power, raising the dead, healing the sick, confronting evil spirits, and then, ultimately, in his death and resurrection, overcoming sin, and death, and the devil. If he could do that, then how can we doubt that he can also overcome the giants and the enemy fortresses that we see in the world?
And having looked back at what he has done, we are then to look forward to his promises. And what is Christ’s cosmic promise to us?
The Apostle John gives it to us in the form of a vision in Revelation 21. There, he describes what God promises to bring about at Christ’s return. And we read this – John writes:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” [Rev. 21:1-5]
When you see the challenges of this life, when you are tempted to despair or to presumption in the face of the brokenness and evil of this world, how often do you turn instead to this promise?
That is your calling. When you see the cosmic giants and strongholds in this world, you are to remember what Christ has done in his first coming, and then go forward trusting in his promises for what he will do in his final coming.
But God’s promises do not stop there.
Because we also need to apply them at a personal level. And this can take place when we face internal challenges or external challenges. Let’s consider the internal challenges this morning.
Sometimes the challenges we face – the giants and strongholds we see – are internal. They may take the form of sin in our hearts: of sinful patterns we cannot seem to overcome, sinful temptations that seem insurmountable.
Other times they take the form of brokenness in our hearts: wounds caused by the sins of others or struggles caused by the fallenness of this world, which can feel overwhelming and overpowering.
When we see those internal challenges, they can feel like giants and enemy fortresses in our hearts. And we can feel like grasshoppers before them. And we again can face the temptation to faithless despair or faithless presumption. On the one hand, we may presumptuously assume that we can fix ourselves on our own – by sheer force of will, we will try to overcome our internal deficiencies. We think it an easy thing to go up into the hill country of our hearts.
Other times, we see the giants and the strongholds, and we give up. We retreat. We let them keep the territory of our heart, and resign ourselves from any hope of seeing their defeat.
But God again calls us to look back, and remember, and then to look forward in faithful dependence.
Christ has overcome our sin and guilt. He has nailed it to the cross and defeated it, so that we are no longer slaves to sin. And as he overcame sin and brokenness on the cross … so he can surely overcome it in our hearts as well.
The Apostle Paul says: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” [Phil 1:6]
Christ began that work when he called us to himself in faith, he will complete it at his second coming, but he continues that work in us now, putting sin to death in our hearts, and healing that which is broken. And looking back to what he has done, and trusting in his promise, we are to bring our sin, and bring our wounds and brokenness to him, in faithful dependence on him, seeking victory that only he can give.
That is not a call to passivity. It is a call to actively fighting our sin, and actively seeking healing for our brokenness. But it is a call to active work that depends for everything on Christ.
The Apostle Paul summarizes it like this in Ephesians 6[:10-13] – he writes: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm.”
We see this on the cosmic level. We see it on the personal level. Finally, we see it on the ecclesiastical level – on the level of the Church.
It is common for God’s people to look out at the challenges the world presents to the Church, and to see giants and enemy fortresses lined up against the Church, and then to be tempted to either faithless despair or faithless presumption.
As we considered a couple weeks ago, Christ has commissioned his Church, in a way that is not unlike how he commissioned Israel here in our text.
In Deuteronomy 1:20-21 the Lord called his people to take the land. In Matthew 28:18-20 the Lord looked at the Church and said to them: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” And he added “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
But when we see the giants and the enemy fortresses of the world, we can be tempted to faithless despair or faithless presumption. And those can take a range of forms.
Sometimes in presumption we go out, trusting in ourselves: in our brains, or in our will power, or in our grit, that on our own, we can advance the kingdom. Other times, in presumption, we can withdraw, convinced that we can set up a perfect cloistered kingdom that will keep the giants out forever.
Sometimes in despair we withdraw, giving up on the commission Christ has charged us with, afraid to be devoured by the world. Still other times, in despair, we go out, accepting the ways of the world, accepting defeat, and surrendering ourselves or our children to the world.
Temptations to faithless despair and faithless presumption can take many forms.
But God calls us instead to look back at what he has done. Yahweh called a childless couple, and promised to make them into a great nation, and despite all the obstacles, despite all the enemies that came, he did it: he made Israel.
Christ called a handful of men and women, and commissioned them to make disciples of the nations, and despite all the challenges, despite all the giants, despite all the hostile strongholds, the Church marches on, making disciples, conquering not only hearts but sometimes nations, so that right now there are over 25 times more people who identify themselves as Christians, alive today, than there were human beings living in the entire Roman Empire in the days of the apostles. Over twenty-five times more! [See my 7/26/20 sermon “Greater Works Than Jesus” for the math behind this statement.]
Jesus said to his apostles that the gates of hell would not prevail against his Church. [Matthew 16:18] And as we look back, we can see that they have not. And so why do we fear? Why do we presume?
Our calling, instead, in faithful dependence on the Lord, is to obey his calling, to be his Church in dependence on him, both when we are gathered together in worship, and when we are sent out into the world in mission.
Despair and presumption can come to us easily. But they require a false vision of the past, and a rejection of God’s promises for the future.
Instead, God calls us to faithful dependence on him, rooted in a vision that looks back to remember what God has done in caring for us before, and then looks forwards in faith, trusting that he will keep his promises.
Let us therefore look back and see our God as he is: a faithful father, who has lovingly carried us and carried his people thus far. And then, trusting in his love, trusting in his power, trusting in his promises, let us go out and do the work that he has called us to do in our hearts, in our lives, and in this world, in faithful dependence on him, trusting that he is with us. And his presence changes everything.
This sermon draws on material from:
Barker, Paul. Introduction and notes to Deuteronomy in The ESV Study Bible. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008.
Block, Daniel I. The NIV Application Commentary: Deuteronomy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012.
Wright, Christopher. Deuteronomy. NIBC. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996.
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