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Sunday, July 21st, 2024
the Week of Proper 11 / Ordinary 16
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Bible Commentaries
Psalms 120

The Biblical IllustratorThe Biblical Illustrator

Verses 1-7

Psalms 120:1-7

In my distress I cried unto the Lord, and He heard me.

The Songs of Degrees

How came this and fourteen following psalms to be put together, and to receive their distinctive title? It has been suggested that they were thus called from peculiarity in rhythm; but perhaps, in this respect, some of them might with as much correctness be described as songs of the goings-down. The opinion is equally doubtful that the heading was given them because, when they were chanted, the volume of voice and music gradually ascended. As much might be safely conjectured of many other psalms. It is not less a flight of fancy to explain the title as meaning Songs of the Steps, attaching the fifteen songs to the flight of fifteen steps in the Temple which led up from the common court to that of the priests; there being no evidence that the Levites were accustomed, in the great festivals, as they mounted from court to court, to halt on every step while singing, with the accompaniment of the flute, that song of the fifteen which corresponded with it in number; or no proof that the stair existed before the time of Herod. Nor can the allusion be to the carrying up of the ark to the tabernacle prepared for it by David; for the authors of half of the Songs of Degrees were not then born. Some conclude that these psalms were composed when the Jews went up from Babylon to their own country (Ezra 7:9). It is not a sufficient objection to this view that they are not called songs of the going-up, but of the goings-up, inasmuch as there were more ascents than one from Babylon to Jerusalem after the seventy years’ captivity; and there is no need to question that some of them were originated by circumstances of the return. But we take it that what the emancipation and its incidents suggested was, not more the composition of new songs than the adoption or adaptation of well-known hymns that had long been popular, and were suitable to the case of the returning Israelites. Fifteen were chosen; and, we may believe, scribes could not copy faster than the work was in demand. God directed the choice, and has preserved the Songs of Degrees for the use and edification of His Church to the end of time. It is not very difficult to see how appropriate were these select songs for the pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Patriotic, short and pithy, with key-words, and catch-words, they were easy to remember, and pleasant to repeat. Plaintive and low sometimes, blending with the thoughts of the aged and the sighs of the feeble and weary, they were as frequently lively and buoyant, tying the bounding youth to the slow pace of the caravan. Depicting demesne scenes, they brought to mind the dear ones left at home in the fatherly care of Jehovah. They contained sweet allusions to David’s piety, and the immortal harp he had tuned for the tribes on Mount Zion, and to Solomon’s magnificent and tranquil reign. They told of the beauty of the city, the splendour of the Temple, and the glad solemnities of the festival to which the pilgrims were going, or from which they were returning. Songs of defiance and triumph they were, of faith, hope and charity, of gratitude and joy, declaring the mighty deeds, watchful protection, bountiful providence and redeeming mercy of the Lord. Who, they demanded, could injure the servants of Him who had saved His people from their Egyptian, Arabian, Philistine, Babylonian and Samaritan foes? The songs of the pilgrims encouraged and strengthened them to persevere in the roughest places and against the greatest dangers. Songs of the Ascents these are, as aids in the goings-up of worship. A good hymn is wings to the soul; and the saint is a living psalm-book. The child of God often feels, when singing choice words, that his Father’s hand is helping him higher. Not only on the long journey to the feast and back were the Israelites “singing pilgrims”: they delighted in their sacred songs along the road and in Jerusalem, because they loved them at home. Hymns are for use in domestic and private devotion, as well as public services. The psalm-book is a looking-glass for you. In its writers, and the saints of whom they write, you may see yourself, and your experience and duty. Behold them at home, in the street, in the temple, in profound distress, in bitter conflict, looking to God, trusting in His mercy, waiting for His interposition, and triumphing in His salvation; and not merely resemble them in situation and want, but, so far as they set you a good example, in disposition, language, meaning and behaviour. Nothing can be fitter than this scroll of songs for the pilgrim to carry in his bosom, as he flies from Destruction, and aims at the Heavenly City. There is no stage in his progress in which it will not supply his heart and lips with appropriate -thought and expression. (E. J. Robinson.)

A good man with bad neighbours

Whoever is the author of the psalm he represents himself as a good man. He had prayed, and his prayer had been answered, and in the last verse he says that whilst his neighbours were for war he was for peace. But his neighbours were distinguished by two great evils--slandering tongues and querulous tempers.

Slandering tongues (verse 2). Slander is a common and a very pernicious evil. “How frequently,” says Sterne, “is the honesty and integrity of a man disposed of by a smile or a shrug! How many good and generous actions have been sunk into oblivion by a distrustful look, or stamped with the imputations of proceeding from bad motives, by a mysterious and seasonable whisper.”

The slanderous tongue was terribly painful to the psalmist. He speaks of it as--

(1) Sharp arrows of the mighty.

(2) Coals of juniper.

2. The slanderer deserves appropriate punishment.

Querulous tempers (verses 5, 6). There are in most neighbourhoods those of irascible, choleric, petulant tempers, always ready for angry wrangling and disputation. Like a tinder box they only require a spark to produce an explosion. Shenstone says, “I consider you very testy and quarrelsome people in the same light as I do a loaded gun, which may, by accident, go off and kill one.” What are you to do with people of this irascible make? Do not contend with them, do not return their spiteful and malignant utterances. As well endeavour to quench the lightning with a spoonful of water. As God made such tempers they have their use. Out of them come the severe critic, the inflexible censor, the savage warrior, the denunciatory preacher. On the contrary, show them kindness. Though much may depend upon their physical organization, the querulous spirit may be exorcized from them, may be utterly overcome. Such reformations have been effected, and Christ’s Gospel of kindness, mighty for that purpose, will one day turn all such natures into love. (Homilist.)

Uncongenial society

Its characteristics (verses 2, 6, 7). This is the very climax of bad society! There is nothing more damaging and dangerous than “lying lips”; nothing more viperous than a “deceitful tongue”; nothing more distracting and disagreeable than a spirit of strife and contention, etc.

Uncongenial society in its results.

1. Inflicting punishment on itself (verses 3, 4); piercing; scorching and consuming.

2. Inflicting distress on the Christian (verse 1). Causing--

(1) Misery (verse 5)

(2) Self-vindication (verse 7). (J. O. Keen, D. D.)

Verse 2

Psalms 120:2

Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips.

Lying lips

A watch that cannot be depended upon is of very little use. It may have a beautiful gold case, it may be sparkling with jewels, but yet it will be of no service to me as a watch unless I can depend on what it tells me about the time. And so one of the things by which we judge of the real value and worth of men or women, of boys or girls, is this--Are they truthful? Do they mean what they say? Are they really what they seem to be? If so, then they are like a watch that keeps good time. But one of the effects of sin on our hearts has been to take away from them the love of the truth, and to incline them to lying.

The disgrace which attends lying.

1. It should make little difference to us what wicked men consider to be disgraceful. But if anything will bring shame and disgrace to us, in the opinion of God and of good men, then we should be very careful not to do that thing, whatever it may be. But there is nothing that will do this sooner than lying (Proverbs 6:17; Proverbs 12:22).

2. It is always disgraceful to follow the example of a very wicked person. But we know that Satan is the most wicked person in this world, or in any other. He is “the father of lies” (John 8:44). When we tell lies, we prove ourselves to be the children of Satan. And there cannot be a greater disgrace in the world than to be closely related to such a person, and to have it proved that he is our father. But liars are not only the children of Satan; they are his servants also (Acts 5:8). Lying is Satan’s work. And when we engage in lying, we let our hearts become Satan’s workshop.

3. In some parts of India, if any person is proved to be a liar, he receives the penalty of the law, which requires that his mouth be sewed up. The offender has his hands tied behind him. He is led out to a post in a public place, to which he is tied, and one of the officers of the government, appointed for that purpose, sews up his lips with a needle and thread. Then he is allowed to go. And every one who sees his closed lips, and the blood flowing from them, can say to himself, “There goes a liar!” What a disgrace that sewed-up mouth would be to a man! David tells us that “the mouth of them that speak lies shall be stopped” (Psalms 63:11); Solomon tells us that “a lying tongue is but for a moment” (Proverbs 12:19); and in another place David says that “lying lips shall be put to silence” (Psalms 31:18). We are not told how God will do this; but we may be very sure it will be in some way that will fasten shame and disgrace on those who have not prayed earnestly, as David did, in the language of our text, “Deliver my soul, O Lord, from lying lips.”

The injury that it does.

1. The first sin ever committed in our world was a lie. It was in the Garden of Eden. Satan was tempting Eve to break God’s commandment. He did it by telling her a lie, and getting her to believe it. And now it is impossible for anybody to count up all the injury that has been done by that sin. That one sin was like poisoning a fountain, and then all the water that flows from it is poisoned too.

2. And when we tell a lie now, we never can tell where the injury that springs from it will stop. It is just like loosening a great rock at the top of a mountain, and letting it go rolling and plunging down the side of the mountain. Nobody can tell how far it will go, nor how much injury it will do before it stops rolling. Telling a lie is like letting a wild beast out of a cage. You can never tell how many people that animal will wound or kill before he is caught again. Telling a lie is like dropping sparks in powder. It is sure to make an explosion, and no one can tell beforehand how much harm that will do. Telling a lie is like going out from the plain beaten path into a tangled wood. You can never tell how long it will take you, or how much you must suffer, before you get back again.

The punishment that follows it (Proverbs 19:9; Rev 21:27-28). But it is not only after death that punishment follows lying. The Bible shows Us how God often punishes people for lying even in this life. There we see Gehazi telling a lie, and the very same day on which he told it brought the punishment. And then we read about Ananias and Sapphira. They agreed together to tell a deliberate, dreadful lie; and they were both struck dead with that lie upon their lips. (R. Newton, D. D.)

Verse 4

Psalms 120:4

Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.

“Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper”

Thy arrows are not pointless, and thou aimest them with some precision; but on my side is the Almighty Warrior. Thou art able to scorch me for a season; but the vengeance of my Deliverer upon thee is a burning fire that never shall be quenched. He shall more than pay thee in thy own coin. Seeking my ruin, thou destroyest thyself. Thou fallest on thy own sword, and into thy own flame. Nay, thou drawest down upon thee the two-edged sword of the mouth of the Almighty (Revelation 1:16; Revelation 2:16; Revelation 19:15; Revelation 19:21). Thou provokest to thy eternal perdition the “Consuming Fire” (Deuteronomy 4:24; Deuteronomy 9:3; Hebrews 12:29). They who use the tongue as an arrow shot forth with inflamed combustibles wrapped about it to set fire to the habitations of others, bring upon their own dwellings and themselves “sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper” (Ephesians 6:16). By “coals of juniper” or “broom” is meant the most vehemently and longest burning fuel, and by “sharp arrows of the mighty” the vengeful weapons of the conqueror. Both figures denote ways and instruments of punishment, and are here employed to picture the defeat and ruin that will come from Jehovah upon His people’s enemies (Psalms 7:13; Psalms 45:5; Psalms 140:9-11). “The Lord is a man of war: the Lord is His Name” (Exodus 15:3; Isaiah 42:13). “He shall redeem their soul from deceit and violence: and precious shall their blood be in His sight” (Psalms 72:14). They who stir their tongues against His children shall have Him move His tongue against themselves. Do men live by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God? It is equally true that by His voice they die. He has but to speak, and they perish. Tremble at the terror of the Lord, “sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.” The language of the wasted and weary, the psalm is also that of the confiding and persevering. Why should the Lord’s people allow lying lips to divert them from the work which He has given them to do, and for which He will find them means and opportunities according to His pleasure? Let the false tongue call them presumptuous, ambitious, incapable, insane: the city and temple of God will yet be completed. They will think less of the adversaries around them, and more of the Master and Friend among them and over all. Their foes may be Strong and fierce as Mesech, and wild and false as Kedar; but the Mighty One who delivered them before is their present Saviour. In the renewal of their distress, they cry to the Lord as formerly; and He repeats His mercies, giving them peace even when there is no peace. (E. J. Robinson.)

Correspondence between transgression and retribution

The world’s sin is the world’s punishment. A correspondence is frequently observed between the transgression and the retribution. The evil we had prepared for others recoils one day upon ourselves; and the cup we had mingled for others is afterwards applied to our own lips. He who sows serpents’ teeth need not look for a joyous harvest. This law of correspondence seems to be here indicated. Similar figures are employed to express the offence and the punishment of the wicked (Jeremiah 9:3; Psalms 64:3). But let the slanderer be upon his guard. There is another bow besides that in his possession. The arrows are sharp and burning; and when they are sent from the bow by the arm of Omnipotence, nothing can resist their force, and in mortal agony His enemies bite the dust (Psalms 7:12-13; Psalms 7:16; Psalms 64:7). This train of thought is also pursued in the illustration of fire. James (James 3:6) compares the tongue of slander to fire. Such is the tongue, and here is the punishment: coals of juniper, remarkable for their long retention of heat. And yet what a feeble illustration of the wrath of God, which burns down to the lowest hell! “His lips are full of indignation, and His tongue as a devouring fire.” Liars are excluded from heaven by a special enactment of the Sovereign; and all of them “shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.” (N. McMichael, D. D.)

Verse 5

Psalms 120:5

Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mosech.

The sojourn in Mesech

Mesech was the son of Japheth, from whom were descended the men who inhabited that most barbarous of all regions, according to the opinion of the ancients, the northern parts of Muscovy or Moscow, and Russia. The inhabitants of the tents of Kedar were the descendants of one of the sons of Abraham, who had taken to nomadic habits, and were continually wandering about over the deserts; and were, besides, thought, and doubtless were, guilty of plundering travellers, and were by no means the most respectable of mankind. We are to understand, then, by this verse, that the people among whom the psalmist dwelt were, in his esteem, among the most barbarous, the most fierce, the most graceless of men. This has been the cry of the children of God in all ages. You have longed to be far away from this dusky world, so full of sin, and traps, and pitfalls, and everything that makes us stumble in our path, and of nothing that can help us onward towards heaven.

First, then, a word or two in justification of the psalmist’s complaint. I will not say that it is thoroughly commendable, in a Christian man, to long to be away from the place where God’s providence has put him. But I will say, and must say, that it is not only excusable, but scarcely needs an apology.

1. Think how the wicked world slanders the Christian. There is no falsehood too base for men to utter against the follower of Jesus.

2. Besides, the Christian is conscious that evil companionship is damaging to him. If he is not burnt, he is at least blackened by contact with the ungodly.

3. The continual process of temptation which surrounds the Christian who is situated in the midst of men of unclean lips.

Having thus spoken a word of justification for the psalmist’s complaint, I am going, next, to justify the ways of God with us, in having subjected us to this dwelling in the tents of Kedar.

1. It is right and just, and good that God has spared us to be here a little longer; for, in the first place, my brothers and sisters, has not God put us here to dwell in the tents of Kedar, because these, though perilous places, are advantageous posts for service? That was a noble speech of our old English king, at Agincourt, when he was surrounded by multitudes of enemies, “Well, be it so. I would not lose so great an honour, or divide my triumph. I would not,” said he, “have one man the fewer among my enemies, because then there would be a less glorious victory.” So, in like manner, let us take heart even from our difficulties. The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge; Jehovah-Nisei is inscribed on our banner.

2. You never will wish, I am sure, to get away from the tents of Kedar if you will recollect that it was through another Christian tarrying here,--when, perhaps, he wanted to be gone ,--that you are this day a Christian. If you were to go to heaven now, perhaps you would go almost alone; but you must stop till there is a companion to go with you.

3. Perhaps our Master keeps us in the tents of Kedar because it will make heaven all the sweeter.

A word of comfort to the Christian while placed in these apparently evil circumstances. Well, there is one word in the text that ought to console him in a case like this. “Woe is me, that I sojourn”--thank God for that word “sojourn.” Yes, I do not live here for ever; I am only a stranger and a sojourner here, as all my fathers were; and though the next sentence does say, “I dwell,” yet, thank God, it is a tent I dwell in, and that will come down by and by: “I dwell in the tents of Kedar.” Ye men of this world, ye may have your day, but your day will soon be over; and I will have my nights, but my nights will soon be over, too. It is not for long, Christian, it is not for long. The end will make amends for all that thou endurest, and thou wilt thank God that He kept thee, and blessed thee, and enabled thee to suffer and endure, and at last brought thee safely home. This, however, is not all the comfort I have for you, because that would look like something at the end, like the child who has the promise of something while it is taking its medicine. No, there is something to comfort you during your trials. Remember that, oven while you are in the tents of Kedar, you have blessed company, for God is with you; and though you sojourn with the sons of Mesech, yet there is Another with whom you sojourn, namely, your blessed Lord and Master. Brethren, ye may be comforted yet again with this sweet thought,--that not only is God with you, but your Master was once in the tents of Kedar; not merely spiritually, but personally, even as you are; and inasmuch as you are here too, this, instead of being painful, should be comforting go you. Have you not received a promise that you shall be like your Head? Thank God that promise has begun to be fulfilled. What more can you want? Is not this a sufficient honour, that the servant is as his Master, and the subject is as his Sovereign? (C. H. Spurgeon.)

Murmuring, its cause and cure

The disposition of which such words as these are the indication is familiar to all of us. We continually observe it. We at least occasionally experience it. It is the disposition to regard ourselves as unfortunate in our circumstances or surroundings, and to fasten upon them the responsibility of our own indolence or failure.

Aimlessness is the mother of murmur. Take all the men you know who are always complaining of everything and every one, and I think you will find that they are persons who have no perceptible object in life, and of whose continued appearance upon the stage of this world you can give no account; except that it is not the will of Providence that they should die, and that it is not their own will that they should commit suicide.

There is such a thing as spiritual aimlessness, and it is precisely the same in kind as that with which we are all familiar. It is of this that I am about to speak. It, too, is the parent of murmuring. From it springs dissatisfaction with our circumstances, impatience of our position, weariness of our enforced employments, and a general state of feeling leading up to such an exclamation as that of the text.

What, then, do i mean by spiritual aimlessness? To make this clear we must understand what is spiritual aim. There are a great many kinds of aim connected with, and even tending towards, religious objects, and yet you may have any or all of them distinctly before you, and be all the while spiritually aimless. There is aim in the conversion of the heathen, the correction of religious error, the building of churches, the government of the Church in general, the improvement of ritual or of worship in some church in particular, the teaching of the young, the visiting of the sick, the comforting of the afflicted. But there is one from which all these ought to spring--one in which they ought all to centre--one to which they ought all to be subservient. That one is the salvation of your own soul. We all need to keep before our minds “the end (aim) of our faith even the salvation of our souls.” That faith is “the substance of things hoped for: the evidence of things not seen.” That faith includes--nay, that faith is a belief that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose”--that from His love neither tribulation, nor distress, nor persecution, nor famine, nor nakedness, nor peril, nor sword shall separate us, that, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him that loved us.” And so, in proportion to the reality and constancy of that faith, will be our power to repress each rising murmur, of which I have taken the text as an example.

At the very best such a murmur is the expression of a regret that we cannot do more for God. And so its obvious corrective is the deepening of our conviction that even so He may be--nay, He certainly is--if we really “love Him above all things,” doing more for us than if He “gave us our desire and sent leanness withal into our soul.” Perchance we are right in our belief that other positions, companionships, or employments would tend to the fuller development of that part of our constitution--intellectual, moral, or spiritual--to which we feel as towards some favoured child. But are we so sure that the course we should mark out for ourselves would tend to the forming of our characters “all round”? No. We do not believe in the love of God if we do not believe that He is doing what is best towards such a formation of us; which, after all, is conformity, as far as we can be conformed hero below, to the perfect character of Him whoso name we bear, whose life is our example, whose death is our hope. (J. C. Coghlan, D. D.)

Mesech and Kedar

The language is metaphorical, for the same people could not be in opposite countries remote from each other, and the two races did not intimately mingle in any border land. The implacable people among or near whom the children of the captivity had to work and wait, whether degenerate countrymen, oppressive Chaldeans, or, more probably, malicious Samaritans, were no better than the fathers of the Muscovites or the offspring of Hagar. In the same way we speak of the Goths whom we encounter, Arabs in our streets, and heathens in Christendom. The psalm, passing from figure to fact, explains itself in the concluding verses. “My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.” By Mosech and Kedar are meant the disturbers of Israel. The missionary abroad, persecuted by ungrateful pagans, and maligned and hindered by immoral and envious settlers; the evangelist at home, whom Pharisees pronounce a low person, and infidels despise; the Methodist, nicknamed by one party a schismatic, and by another now patted on the back, and then cuffed and kicked; the Christian student, in a class composed mainly of disdainful unbelievers and provoking worldlings; the religious workman hated by intemperate associates for his purity, and cursed by blasphemers among them for his piety; the God-fearing apprentice, under an ill-tempered taskmaster who construes his mistakes into proofs of hypocrisy, and among thoughtless shop-mates who ridicule his habits of devotion and his scrupulous behaviour; the converted youth whose parents are not ashamed of being without sittings in the sanctuary, and whose brothers and sisters are Sabbath breakers; any one of these tried saints of the Lord, and many another sufferer from proud and false tongues, may use the words, “Woe is me,” etc. (E. J. Robinson.)

Grace independent of ordinances

When there was no rain from heaven, God could cause a mist to arise and water the earth (Genesis 2:6); even so, if the Lord should bring us where there be no showers of public ordinances, He can stir up in our souls those holy and heavenly meditations, which shall again drop down like a heavenly dew upon the face of our souls, and keep up a holy verdure and freshness upon the face of our souls. Egypt is said to have no rain; but God makes it fruitful by the overflowing of its own river Nilus. And truly if God bring any true believer into a spiritual Egypt, where the rain of public ordinances doth not fall, He can cause such a flow of holy and heavenly thoughts and meditations as shall make the soul very fruitful in a good and a holy life; and therefore we should oft, in such a condition, believingly remember, that if we do our endeavour, by private prayer, meditation, reading, and such like, God is able, and will, in the want of public ordinances, preserve the life of religion in our souls, by private helps. (J. Jackson, M. A.)

Forced association with the ungodly

Religious people are sometimes forced by the necessity of their lives to associate with those who are worldly and irreligious. “Woe is me, that I am constrained to dwell with Mesech, and to have my habitstion among the tents of Kedar.” How shall those who have to dwell in the tents of ungodliness keep their souls from being contaminated by bad examples? The following anecdote furnishes a useful hint. A certain nobleman, we are told, was very anxious to see the model from whom Guido painted his lovely female faces. Guido placed his colour-grinder, a big coarse man, in an attitude, and then drew a beautiful Magdalen. “My dear Count,” he said, “the beautiful and pure ideal must be in the mind, and then it is no matter what the model is.” He in whose heart and mind is enshrined the beautiful and pure idea of Christ has a model after which to shape his life, and then it is no matter about other models. (Quiver.)

Verse 6

Psalms 120:6

My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.

Haters of peace

What an appalling picture have we hero of unreasonable and wicked men! As they love lies, so they hate peace. Is not this the very spirit of him, who was both a liar and a murderer from the beginning? They hate that which is beloved by all the good. What holy and gentle delight is associated with the very name of peace! Peace resting upon our bosom, and soothing all its cares: peace resting upon our households, and folding all the members in one loving embrace: peace resting upon our country, and pouring abundance from her golden horn: peace resting upon all nations, and binding them together with the threefold cord of a common humanity, a common interest, and a common religion! The man who hates peace is a dishonour to the race, an enemy to his brother, and a traitor to his God. He hates Christ, who is the Prince of peace. He hates Christians, who are men of peace. Destitute of internal peace himself, and reluctant that any should possess a blessing in which he himself has no part, it is his incessant effort to sow the seeds of alienation, and to fan the flames of discord. And just as the foul bird of prey scents the battle from afar, and flees to the field of carnage, so you find the haters of peace perpetually prowling around scenes of contention, that they may lend a helping hand to the work of Satan. (N. McMichael, D. D.)


Psalms 121:1-8

Bibliographical Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Psalms 120". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/tbi/psalms-120.html. 1905-1909. New York.
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