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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator
Numbers 20

 

 

Verse 1

Numbers 20:1

The people abode in Kadesh.

The new departure

The fortieth year is now running its course. The time of the curse has nearly expired. And now preparations may be begun for entering a second time on the march to Canaan, where a new generation must vindicate the claim of Israel to be indeed “the hosts of the Lord,” by taking possession of the land of promise. It was at Kadesh that the sentence had been pronounced which doomed their fathers to these dreary years of wandering. It is at Kadesh again that the camp is reorganised. It seems likely that during the interval there was no definite aim or object before the people, so that they moved about as suited their convenience or necessities, very much as the wandering tribes of the desert do still. This would lead to a relaxation of discipline and order in the camp, and more or less scattering of the people. Their unity was indeed to a certain extent kept up, and their marching orders given as of old, probably at long intervals. So at least we would infer from the itinerary in chap. 33.; but there must have been no little disorganisation and dispersion, rendering it necessary that there should be a reassembling of the forces. For this purpose no place could be better or more appropriate than Kadesh, not only because it must have been so familiar to all, but also because, by making it their point of departure, they resumed the thread that had been broken by the unbelief of their fathers. The total loss of the long interval of time, moreover, is more distinctly marked by the gathering of the people together at the old halting-place. There is a striking contrast between the new departure and the old. The first began with the numbering and mustering of the armed men, and all the bustle, activity, and energy of a youthful host setting out to victory. The second seems to have a much less hopeful beginning. The twentieth of Numbers is one of the saddest chapters in the book. It begins with the death of her who had been the leader in the song of victory on the shores of the Red Sea. It ends with the death of him who had so long been the honoured representative of Israel in the Holy and the Most Holy Place. And, between the two, we have the old story of murmuring on the part of the people, and mercy on the part of God, but with this sad addition, that Moses himself has a fall--a fall so serious that it leads to his own, as well as Aaron’s, exclusion from the land of promise. It seems a hopeless beginning indeed. But was there not something hopeful in its very hopelessness? Recall that scene of wrestling at Peniel, when the patriarch Jacob gained the new name of Israel. How did he gain it? By his own strength? Nay. It was through weakness that he was made strong. It was when his power was utterly broken that his hope of victory began. This will illustrate what we mean when we say that there is something hopeful in the very hopelessness of this chapter. And this prepares the way for the great lesson of the next chapter, which may be expressed in the very words which follow the passage just quoted from the 146th Psalm, “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God.” (J. M. Gibson, D. D.)

Miriam died there.

The death of Miriam

I. Death terminates the most protracted life. Miriam must have been about 130 years old when she died.

II. Death terminates the most eventful life.

1. The girl watching over the life of her infant brother (Exodus 3:4-8).

2. The experienced woman sharing in the interest and action of the stirring events which led to the great emancipation from Egypt.

3. The prophetess leading the exultant songs and dances of a triumphant people (Exodus 15:20-21).

4. The envious woman aspiring after equality with, and speaking against her greater brother (Numbers 12:1-2).

5. The guilty woman smitten with leprosy because of the sin (Numbers 12:9-10).

6. The leprous woman healed in answer to the prayer of the brother whom she had spoken against (Numbers 12:13-15). The most stirring and eventful life is closed by death, as well as the quiet and monotonous one.

III. Death terminates the most distinguished life.

1. Miriam was distinguished by her gifts. Prophetic gifts arc ascribed to her. “Miriam, the prophetess,” is her acknowledged title (Exodus 15:20).

2. Miriam was distinguished by her position.

IV. Death, by reason of sin, sometimes terminates life earlier than it otherwise would have done.

V. death sometimes terminates life with suggestions of a life beyond. It was so in the case of Miriam. Can we think that the gifts with which she was so richly endowed, and the treasures of experience which in her long and eventful life she had gathered, were all lost at death? This would be in utter opposition to the analogy of the Divine arrangements in the universe. (W. Jones.)


Verses 1-29

Verses 2-13

Numbers 20:2-13

Neither is there any water to drink.

The privations of man and the resources of God

I. There are privations in the pilgrimage of human life. One man thinks that without health his life would be worthless; yet he has to submit to its loss for a time. To another man prosperity seems essential; to another, friendship, or some one friend or relative; yet of these they are sometimes deprived. Life, in our view, has many privations. This characteristic of our pilgrimage is for wise and gracious ends. Privation should remind us that we are pilgrims--incite us to confide in God--and discipline our spirits into patience and power.

II. The privations in the pilgrimage of life sometimes develop the evil tendencies of human nature. This murmuring of the Israelites was--

1. Unreasonable.

2. Cruel.

3. Ungrateful.

4. Degraded.

5. Audaciously wicked.

III. The privations in the pilgrimage of life, and the evils which are sometimes occasioned by them, impel the good to seek help of God.

1. Consciousness of need.

2. Faith in the sufficiency of the Divine help.

3. Faith in the efficacy of prayer to obtain the Divine help.

4. Faith in the efficacy of unspoken prayer.

IV. The privations in the pilgrimage of life are sometimes removed in answer to the prayer of the good. (W. Jones.)

No water

I. The place here spoken of. The wilderness. The people were led thither--

1. For discipline.

2. For solitude.

3. For proving. How sadly they failed.

II. The want. Water--

1. A necessity for sustenance.

2. A necessity for purity.

3. A want which they were unable to provide for themselves.

III. The people’s action. “They murmured.” An act natural to the human heart; but very sinful and foolish--

1. Because it distrusted God.

2. Because it did no good.

3. Because it made themselves more wretched and miserable still.

IV. The provision made.

1. Unexpected in its source.

2. Unexpected in the manner of its attainment.

3. Unexpected in quantity.

V. The instruction afforded. That rock was a type of Christ. He was appointed of God, stricken of man, means of salvation to those appointed to die, &c. (Preacher’s Analyst.)

The muddy bottom

The heart of man is like a peeler standing water. Look at it on a summer’s day, when not a breeze ruffles the surface, not a bird flies over to cast its light shadow on its face. It is so clear, so bright, you may see your own image reflected there. Now cast a stone to the bottom, and watch the effect. The dark mud is rising all around, rank weeds are floating up which you never saw before; the whole pool is in a state of motion, and hardly a drop of water has escaped the foul pollution. Look at your heart when all outward things go well. No vexing, crossing care mars its tranquil calm, and you think you see the image of Jesus reflected there. It is so long since sin has molested you that you think it has left you quite, and that all is sure within. Now let a sudden offence come, an unkind, undeserved rebuke; let pride be touched, or self-will roused, and presently all is lost. Like the waves of an angry sea, the poor mind is tossed from thought to thought, and finds no rest. The mud is raised from the bottom, and not one comer of that wretched heart is free from its polluting influence. All gentle, soothing thoughts are gone, and one by one the dark weeds are floating on the surface. (Quiet Thoughts for Quiet Hours.)

Speak ye unto the rock.--

God’s use of insufficient means

He told Moses to speak to the rock, and it should give forth water. On a former occasion he was to smite the rock; now he was only to speak to it. If there were any unbelievers in the camp they might mock at this command, and say, How is it possible to get water out of a rock? let us rather dig wells, if haply we may find water. And truly to the eye and ear of sense these observations might appear plausible. Now God’s way of bringing sinners to glory is just the same. The life of the Christian is a life of faith throughout. The appointed means have no inherent efficacy. God tries the faith of His people; disappoint it He never will. He has provided strength equal to their day, yet will He send it in such a way as to make them feel their utter helplessness. They see most of God’s love and gracious designs, and have most peace and comfort in their afflictions, who live most by faith. (George Breay, B. A.)

With his rod he smote the rock twice.--

The smitten rock

I. The sinful attitude of the people. They were discontented, enraged, and faithless. And so men grow discontented and cry out against God, as if trouble were the only experience they knew anything about--the most unhappy and morbid state of mind into which any Christian believer can come. It is strange also how, when one thing goes wrong with us, everything seems to be awry. The children of Israel were thirsty, and therefore they complained that the desert of Zin was not the garden of the Lord, full of all manner of fruits. Put a red lamp into a mass of shrubbery, and leaf and blossom are forthwith dyed an angry crimson. Thwart some cherished purpose of a man, and immediately everything takes on the colour of his disappointment. Society is disintegrating, the Church is going to destruction, life is a vale of tears. Nothing but immovable faith in God can save us from this wretched partialism.

II. The merciful attitude of God. What might He be expected to do under the circumstances? What wonder if He should say, “It is of no use to be patient any longer. This people will not have Me for their Ruler. Let them perish.” But that is not God’s way. He recognises the weakness of men, pities their sufferings, relieves their wants, and so gives the people another chance to understand Him. And how often that ancient wonder is wrought anew in human experience! Some critical event occurs in our history, which for a time at least shatters our faith in the Divine goodness and justice, well established as that faith ought to be when we remember the general tenor of our life, and God, instead of flaming out against our inconstancy and leaving us to our own devices, makes that very event the occasion of a new and gracious revelation of His love. With time and pains we arrange some well-compacted plan, on whose success it seems to us all our good fortune depends, and it thrives for a while; but suddenly all things are against us, and our hopes are wrecked, and we grow bitter and rebellious, and then God uses that very disaster to teach us juster views of life and to create in us a nobler frame of mind, and develop a broader manhood, and we have a nobler ambition and are better equipped than ever before. And then from the barren rock of bereavement God brings streams of refreshing. The remaining members of the household are more closely welded together, a more tender sympathy with each other springs up, the unseen life becomes a grander reality, and, as in the flush of the sunset that follows the storm, we forget the fury of the blast in the glory of the transfigured heavens, so men and women, in the chastened spirit that results from trials, and in the light of new and larger hopes which have been kindled, bear glad testimony: “It is good for us that we have been afflicted.”

III. The unwarrantable attitude of Moses and Aaron. They were angry with the people and called them hard names, addressing them as “rebels.” They spoke as if they were the chief agents of the miracle which God wrought. “Hear now, ye rebels,” they said to the people, “must we fetch you water out of this rock?” So far as their words went, they were taking upon themselves the glory which belonged to God alone. Then, too, they were not satisfied with the Divine directions. For these assumptions Moses and Aaron were rebuked on the spot, and a sentence of punishment pronounced upon them. There is important practical instruction here for those who teach or preach God’s Word to sinful men. It is not to be done in a self-satisfied way, with the assumption of superior sanctity. Neither are we to take credit to ourselves for good results which may follow our administration of Divine truth. It is not our wisdom or eloquence, but the Word of God which is “quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.” Humility and self-distrust are eminently becoming in those who undertake to do God’s work of influencing men for good. (E. S. Atwood.)

Moses at the rock

1. Did you ever hear people cry out, “I wish I were dead”? That is what the Israelites said--“Would God we had died!” These wishes were hasty, and as insincere as hasty. No doubt those people would flee from death with terror at the first sign of his approach. It has been well said that “a discontented heart makes a reckless tongue.”

2. Now we come to Moses’ sin. He did not attend carefully to God’s Word, nor obey it, because he was angry. Notice his bitter words. Let us beware of the sin of anger. Look at the fifth of Galatians, and it tells you that “wrath” is one of the “lusts of the flesh.” In Proverbs we are told that “he that is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he that ruleth his spirit than he that taketh a city.” Why is a person who conquers himself better than a great general who takes a city? There are three reasons.

Do you know heaven is full of conquerors? And Revelation 12:11 tells us how they conquered: “They overcame by the blood of the Lamb.” (British Weekly Pulpit.)

The scene at Meribah

This is a memorable incident in the Jews’ history, rich in warning to us at this day. Moses had failed in his duty towards God in three particulars.

1. He had failed in strict obedience.

2. He had shown temper, used hard language.

3. He had taken to himself the credit of supplying the Israelites with water.

I. The danger of departing, in the least jot or tittle, from any law of God.

II. The immense importance attached to temperate speech, the necessity of keeping a check on temper and not letting ourselves be moved to hot and angry words.

III. This scene is further useful as carrying our thoughts upwards to Him who is the source of all our hopes, the nourishment of our soul, the very life of our religion, the Lord Jesus Christ. (R. D. B. Rawnsley, M. A.)

Moses striking the rock

The Biblical writers are charmingly candid. Do they speak of other men’s faults? They take care also to record their own. Reputation is sacrificed on the altar of truth; the unselfish lawgiver informs us of his own transgression and its terrible penalty. What may we learn from his sin?

I. We must not seek right ends by wrong means. Here Moses erred. How often has his sin been repeated! Look at Caiaphas. He says in reference to the Saviour, “It is expedient that one man die, and not that the whole nation should perish.” The latter part of the sentence is admirable, the former is atrocious . . . Error should be opposed; we ought to stop its progress as quickly as possible--but by persuasion, not persecution.

II. We must beware of doing more than God commands. There are two opposite ways of sinning--by defect, and by excess. A child who, in adding up a sum, makes it “come to too much,” blunders as completely as if he made it “come to too little.” And such a form of wrong-doing is possible spiritually. We as much violate our duty as “followers of God,” if we get ahead of our Guide, as though we lagged so far behind that we could no longer see Him or tread in His steps. Are we not all, for instance, harder in our judgments, more exacting, more stringent and rigorous in our demands, than He is whom we profess to follow; and is not this to go before God, and to go before Him not to prepare His way, but to scare men from His presence?

III. Precedent is a perilous guide. Moses had struck the rock before by God’s command, and probably he argued that what was right then could not be wrong now. But let us remember, that “circumstances alter cases.” A thing which is wise for one time may be folly for another. (T. R. Stevenson.)

The sin of Moses

I. What there was sinful in Moses.

1. Disobedience to the Divine command.

2. Immoderate heat and passion.

3. Unbelief.

4. It was all publicly done, and so the more dishonouring to God.

II. What we may learn from this tragical story.

1. What a holy and jealous God He is with whom we have to do.

2. The Lord’s children need not think it strange if they get abundance to exercise that grace in which they most excel.

3. Let us not be surprised to see or hear the saints failing even in the exercise of that grace wherein they most excel.

4. Never think yourselves secure from failing till ye be at the end of your race.

5. What need we have to guard constantly our unruly passions, and put a bridle on our lips.

6. Though God pardons the iniquity of His servants, yet He will take vengeance on their inventions (Psalms 99:8).

7. If God punishes His children thus for falling into the snare, how shall they escape who lay the snare for them?

8. Observe the ingenuousness of the penmen of the Holy Scripture--Moses records his own fault. (T. Boston, D. D.)

Sin in the child of God

I. Very painful to God.

II. Most inexcusable.

III. Most disastrous in its results,

IV. Very certain of punishment.

Let this incident--

1. Make God’s people more watchful.

2. Lead others to ponder their ways ; for if God visits His own children for sin, a fortiori, He will not let the wicked escape.

3. Let none forget that God can forgive sin--all sin--through Jesus Christ. (David Lloyd.)

The sins of holy men, and their punishment

The sin of Moses and Aaron seems to have included--

1. Want of faith.

2. Irritation of spirit.

3. Departure from Divine directions.

4. Assumption of power.

5. The publicity of the whole.

I. The liability of the good to sin.

II. The danger of good men failing in those excellences which most distinguish them.

III. The impartiality of the administration of the Divine government.

IV. The great guilt of those who by their wickedness occasion sin in the good.

V. The means which God uses to deter men from sin. Divine judgments, expostulations with the sinner, encouragements and aids to obedience, are all so employed. By the voice of history, by the law from Sinai, by the gospel of His Son, by the Cross of Jesus Christ, by the influences of His Spirit, God is ever crying to the sinner, “Oh! do not this abominable thing that I hate.” Let Christians guard against temptation; let them cultivate a watchful and prayerful spirit. (W. Jones.)

How it went ill with Moses

It was but one act, one little act, but it blighted the fair flower of a noble life, and shut the one soul, whose faith had sustained the responsibilities of the Exodus with unflinching fortitude, from the reward which seemed so nearly within its grasp.

I. How it befell. The demand of the people on the water supply at Kadesh was so great that the streams were drained, whereupon there broke out again that spirit of murmuring and complaint which had cursed the former generation, and was now reproduced in their children. They professed to wish that they had died in the plague that Aaron’s censer had stayed. They accused the brothers of malicious designs to effect the destruction of the whole assembly by thirst. It could hardly have been otherwise than that he should feel strongly provoked. However, he resumed his old position, prostrating himself at the door of the tent of meeting until the growing light that welled forth from the Secret Place indicated that the Divine answer was near. Moses was bidden, though betook the rod, not to use it, but to speak to the rock with a certainty that the accents of his voice, smiting on its flinty face, would have as much effect as ever the rod had had previously, and would be followed by s rush of crystal water. Yes, when God is with you, words are equivalent to rods. Rods are well enough to use at the commencement of faith’s nurture, and when its strength is small, but they may be laid aside without hesitance in the later stages of the education of the soul. For as faith grows, the mere machinery and apparatus it employs becomes ever less, and its miracles are wrought with the slightest possible introduction of the material. Moses might have entered into these thoughts of God in quieter moments, but just now he was irritated, indignant, and hot with disappointment and anger. The people did not suffer through their leader’s sin. The waters gushed from out the rock as plentifully as they would have done if the Divine injunctions had been precisely complied with. Man’s unbelief does not make the faith of God of none effect; though we believe not, yet He remaineth faithful, He cannot deny Himself, or desert the people of His choice.

II. The principle that underlay the divine decision.

1. There was distinct disobedience. No doubt was possible about the Divine command, and it had been distinctly infringed. This could not be tolerated in one who was set to lead and teach the people. God is sanctified whenever we put an inviolable fence around Himself and His words; treating them as unquestionable and decisive; obeying them with instant and utter loyalty. It is a solemn question for us all whether we are sufficiently accurate in our obedience.

2. There was unbelief. It was as if he had felt that a word was not enough. As if there must be something more of human might and instrumentality. He did not realise how small an act on his part was sufficient to open the sluice-gates of Omnipotence. It reminds us of the shattering of the Hell-Gate Rock at the entrance of New York Harbour. The touching of a tiny button by a little child set in action the train of gunpowder by which that vast obstruction was blasted to atoms, and heaved for all time out of the path of the ships. A touch is enough to set Omnipotence in action. It is very wonderful to hear God say to Moses, “Ye believed not in Me.” Was not this the man by whose faith the plagues of Egypt had fallen on that unhappy land, and the Red Sea had cleft its waters? Had the wanderings impaired that mighty soul, and robbed it of its olden strength, and left it like any other? Surely something of this sort must have happened. One act could only have wrought such havoc by being the symptom of some unsuspected wrong beneath. Oaks do not fall beneath a single storm, unless they have become rotten at their heart. Let us watch and pray, lest there be in any of us an evil heart of unbelief, lest we depart in our most secret thought from simple faith in the living God. Let us especially set a watch at our strongest point. But how much there is of this reliance on the rod in all Christian endeavour! Some special method has been owned of God in times past, in the conversion of the unsaved or in the edification of God’s people, and we instantly regard it as a kind of fetish. We try to meet new conditions by bringing out the rod and using it as of yore. It is a profound mistake. God never repeats Himself. He suits novel instrumentalities to new emergencies. Where a rod was needful once He sees that a word is better now. What does it matter if the means He ordains appear to our judgment inferior to those which He commanded once? This is no business of ours.

3. There was the spoiling of the type. That Rock was Christ, from whose heart, smitten in death on Calvary, the river of water of life has flowed to make glad the city of God, and to transform deserts into Edens. But death came to Him and can come to Him but once. “Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many.” It is clear that for the completeness of the likeness between substance and shadow, the rock should have been stricken but once. Instead of that it was smitten at the beginning and at the close of the desert march. But this was a misrepresentation of an eternal fact, and the perpetrator of the heedless act of iconoclasm must suffer the extreme penalty, even as Uzzah died for trying to steady the swaying ark.

III. The irrevocableness of the Divine decisions. Moses drank very deeply of the bitter cup of disappointment. And no patriot ever yearned for fatherland as Moses to tread that blessed soil. With all the earnestness that he had used to plead for the people, he now pleaded for himself. But it was not to be. The Lord said unto him, Let it suffice thee; speak no more unto Me of this matter. The sin was forgiven, but its consequences were allowed to work out to their sorrowful issue. There are experiences with us all in which God forgives our sin, but takes vengeance on our inventions. We reap as we have sown. We suffer where we have sinned. At such times our prayer is not literally answered. By the voice of His Spirit, by a spiritual instinct, we become conscious that it is useless to pray further. But, oh! that God would undertake the keeping of our souls, else, when we least expect it, we may be overtaken by some sudden temptation, which befalling us in the middle, or towards the close of our career, may blight our hopes, tarnish our fair name, bring dishonour to Him, and rob our life of the worthy capstone of its edifice. (F. B. Meyer, B. A.)


Verses 14-21

Numbers 20:14-21

Edom refused to give Israel passage through his border.

A reasonable request, and an ungenerous refusal:--

I. A reasonable request.

1. Reasonable in itself.

2. Urged by forcible reasons.

(a) As an indication that it was His will that others should aid them.

(b) As an example to encourage others to aid them.

(c) As an indication of His favour towards them, which suggested that it was to the interest of others to aid them. It is perilous to resist those whom God defends; it is prudent to further their designs, &c.

II. An ungenerous refusal. This refusal of the Edomites probably arose from--

1. Fear that if they complied with the request of the Israelites the result might be injurious to them.

2. Envy at the growing power of Israel.

3. Remembrance of the ancient injury inflicted by Jacob upon Esau.

Retribution consummated

Who pleads? Israel. To whom is the plea addressed? To a brother. How did the word “brother “ come into the narrative? It came historically. We have here Jacob and Esau. Edom is the name by which Esau was known. Wherever we find the term Edom, our minds may instantly associate with it the history of Esau, and an action of Divine sovereignty in relation to that history. Jacob supplanted Esau, ran away in the night-time, met his brother at some distance of time afterwards, the brothers fell upon one another’s necks, kissed each other, and seemed to sink the infinite outrage in grateful and perpetual oblivion. Nothing of the kind. Life cannot be managed thus; things do not lie between man and man only. Herein is the difference between crime and sin. So Jacob and Esau come face to face throughout the ages. The supplanter cannot sponge out his miserable cunning and selfish deceit and unpardonable fraud. Jacob the individual dies, Esau the individual dies: but Jacob and Esau, as representing a great controversy, can never die: to the end of the chapter Edom will encounter Israel with deep and lasting animosity. So Esau had his turn. We pitied the hairy man as he was driven away portionless, without a blessing, his great heart full of sin no doubt, quivering with agony, for which there was no adequate expression in words; but in so far as he has been wronged he will see satisfaction and himself be satisfied. The supplanted family had a land when the supplanter’s descendants had only a wilderness. This is the law of Providence. Events are not measured within the compasses of the little day. The cunning man or the strong man, the oppressor or the wrong-doer, may have his victory to-day, and may smile upon it, and regard it with complacency, and receive the incense of adulation from persons who only see between sunrise and sundown. But the heavens are against him; he has to encounter the eternities, long time after his victory shall wither, and in his descendants his humiliation shall be consummated. (J. Parker, D. D.)


Verse 17

Numbers 20:17

We will go by the king’s highway.

The king’s highway

They meant that, however tempting was the fruit of the fields, however fascinating the byways, however inviting the sparkling water in the wells might seem, they would keep to the bard-beaten thoroughfares that ran north and south of the country, by which travellers had passed in ages now gone by. Now, without doubt, such words have a spiritual and typical meaning.

I. Of the nation at large. Israel pronounced them unanimously as a nation, and we, as the English nation, may well re-echo them after all these hundreds of years. And it is well for us to bear in mind that “whole nations” must stand up for God as well as individuals. Numbers can never make a sin less grievous.

II. They are words, too, that may be hoped for from the mouth of the church. God is essentially a God of :law and order. The Church must go by the King’s highway.

III. But as with the nation and with the Church, so with the individual, they are words that are appropriate in the mouth--

1. Of the young Christian, starting off on life’s journey, just going into the world. Happy, aye thrice happy, he who, with dogged determination, says, “We will go by the King’s highway.”

2. So, too, they are suited especially to the penitent. He, too, must look into the future and resolve “to go by the King’s highway.” And here we must pause to notice that the individual highway consists--

IV. Lastly, we are not alone in our efforts to go by the King’s highway; we are cheered by the examples of all the saints whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. In conclusion, I would add that the King’s highway leads to the city of the Great King. (W. O. Parish.)


Verses 25-29

Numbers 20:25-29

Aaron died there in the top of the mount.

The death of Aaron

The first and most superficial aspect of death is that it is the close of an earthly career. What kind of career was it that was brought to a close when Aaron died? First of all, there could be no question as to its prominence. Aaron shares with Moses, though as a subordinate, the glory of having ruled and shaped the course and conduct of his countrymen at a time of unexampled difficulty, at a time pregnant with the highest consequences to the religious future of the world. But Aaron’s place in religious history is more distinctly measured if we consider the great office to which he was called. He was the first of a long line of men who were at the head of what was for ages the only true religion in the world. He was the first high priest of the chosen people. Office, however, and position is one thing; character is another; and, if it is here that we find a great difference between the brothers, we must first of all remind ourselves that Aaron is called in Scripture “the saint of the Lord.” He must have had a great background of those high qualities which go to make up the saintly character, if he also had defects which are recorded for our instruction. Aaron was morally a weak man. He had no such grasp of principle as would enable him to hold out against strong pressure. Nor is it inconsistent with this that Aaron could display obstinate self-assertion on inopportune occasions, as when he joined his sister Miriam in murmuring against Moses. This is exactly what weak people do; they give way when true loyalty to duty would teach them to resist, and then, haunted by the notion that they are weak, or at least that the world will think them so, they indulge in some form of spasmodic self-assertion which may remind us of the ungainly efforts that invalids will sometimes make to show that they are not quite so ill as their friends may think them. And now the end had come. Moses and Aaron both knew that Aaron would die. It may have been that some hitherto unsuspected disease had shown itself in the constitution of the old man; it may have been, as has been suggested, that a sand-storm in the Arabah had withered up his decaying vitality. That Aaron would die might have been known from observation, as God often speaks to us through the wonted changes of the world of nature. But Aaron and Moses also knew why Aaron was to die, and why on Mount Hor. If we knew enough, we should all of us know that there is a reason in the Divine mind for the hour at which, as for the means by which, every man and woman departs this life. We all are interested in ascertaining as exactly as we can the physical reason of the death of those relations whom God in His providence removes from our sight; but behind the physical reason there is a moral reason, if we could only know it; and we may say, with confidence, that, in the eyes of God, who is the perfect moral Being, the moral reason accounts for much more than the physical. Sometimes a life is prolonged to do one single piece of work which no other would do as well, and as soon as that work is done, that life is withdrawn. Sometimes a life is cut short because it has forfeited the particular privilege which an extension of some months or even weeks would bring to it, and this was the case of Aaron--“And the Lord spake unto Moses and Aaron in Mount Hor, by the coast of the land of Edom, saying Aaron shall be gathered to his people, for he shall not enter into the land which I have given to the children of Israel because he rebelled against My word at the waters of Meribah.” Aaron’s share in the sin of Meribah was due to the same want of firmness which, as we have seen, was a feature in his character. The sin of Meribah was, in the first instance, the sin of Moses, when the people murmured at the want of water, and Moses, worried no doubt by their perverseness, in the very act of relieving them betrayed, both by what he said and by what he did, a temper unworthy of his high office, so that he did not sanctify the Lord God in the eyes of the people. As a later Psalmist reflects--“The people angered God at the waters of strife, so that He punished Moses for their sakes, because that they provoked his spirit so that he spake unadvisedly with his lips.” As for Aaron, he not only did not check Moses, he acquiesced in what he must have known to be dishonourable to God; and this in a man with his spiritual responsibilities was a grave failure of duty. Much more, Moses bad forfeited that high privilege, but then the work which Moses had to do in the world was not yet done. But Aaron’s appointed work was done, and there was no reason for delaying his summons. And here we are led to reflect on a subject which too often escapes notice. Many men, probably the majority of those who do not incur eternal loss, yet do from some flaw in the character, from some warp or weakness in the will, fall, more or less, greatly short of what they might have been, of what natural powers and spiritual endowments and religious and other opportunities might have made them even in this world; and if here, then also hereafter, even if by God’s mercy in Christ we reach it, it may be to fill a lower rather than what might have been a higher place, but for some compliance with what conscience condemned, but for some act or some omission which has left upon the soul and the character that lasting impress which survives death. There is much to be noticed in the account of the close of Aaron’s life, but nothing is more worthy of our notice than his deliberate preparation for it. He did not let death come on him, he went to meet it. The last scene was as much a matter of duty, a matter of business, as his consecration to the high priesthood Ah I death, surely, is like a mountain-top for the survey which it gives to life, and the deserts through which we have wandered, and the barriers which have checked our progress, and the hopes, bright or dim, which have cheered us on, and the feebleness and the fear of man, and the self-seeking, and the petty vanity (if nothing worse) which have spoiled so much that God meant for Himself, standout in clear outlines above the haze of the distant past. Doubtless it was with Aaron as with any man who retains, along with a conscience that has not been seared, the free exercise of the mind’s powers in those last solemn moments which precede the greatest of all changes--doubtless, it was with him as with others upon whom their position and work in life have entailed great responsibility for the real and lasting happiness or misery of their fellow men. At such times the simply conventional no longer satisfies. At such times standards of conduct that are natural to human sanction are seen to be no longer applicable, the mental eye sees through and beyond the phrases which inclination or passion have hitherto interposed between it and the past. It sees the past more nearly, not as self-love has wished it to be, but as it was. At such times the higher a man’s place in the government, or the social fabric of the state, or in the hierarchy of the Church, the more sincerely must he breathe the prayer, “If Thou, Lord, shouldest be extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who may abide it?” But time was passing. The last moments were now at hand; so Moses, acting, as we know, under Divine instructions, stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son. There was, no doubt, a two-fold motive in this act of Moses. It showed, first of all, that the office of the high priesthood did not depend on the life of any single man, that God was watching over the religious interests of His people, that His gifts and calling were, as the apostle says, “without repentance, without recall,” and that He provides for the due transmission of those spiritual faculties which have been given that they may sustain the higher life of man from age to age. But it also reminded Aaron personally of the solemn truth of the utter solitariness of the soul in death. Not more than any other man can a high priest retain the outward position, the valued symbols, of his great office. He, too, shall carry nothing away with him when he dieth, neither shall his pomp follow him. Death strips us of everything save that which, so far as we know, is by God’s appointment strictly indestructible. Our undying personality and that type of character which acts and habits and the use or misuse of the supernatural grace of God have, for good or for evil, wrought into its very texture--this is indeed for ever ours. All else is, like the sacerdotal robes of Aaron, to be abandoned, at the place where, at the moment when, we lie down to die. It was all over. Aaron had closed his eyes, and Moses buried him where at this day a Moslem shrine, constructed out of the ruins of some earlier and finer edifice, still bears his name. It was all over, and like a procession returning from a funeral without the one object which had formed its chiefest interest, Moses and Eleazar, so we are told, came down from the mount. What were their thoughts about Aaron? Where was he now? “Aaron,” so runs the phrase of Moses, “was gathered to his people.” What does the phrase mean? It is used alike of Moses and Aaron. Does it describe only the interment of their bodies? But in either case their bodies rested at a distance from their people, in a foreign soil. Surely, it points to a world in which the bygone generations of men still live, a world of the existence of which God’s ancient people were well assured, though they knew much less of it than we. That world beyond the grave is no doubt presented with different degrees of clearness in the successive ages of Old Testament history. The age of the patriarchs is marked by strong and distinct faith in it. In the days and teaching of Moses it is more kept in the background, probably because the imagination of Israel was still haunted by the imagery of the underworld of the dead, as the Egyptians had conceived of it. In Job and some of the Psalms it is the subject sometimes of anxious discussion, sometimes of strong and undoubting faith. In the prophets it comes prominently forward as the promised Messiah, heralded not merely as an earthly ruler, but as a deliverer from the consequences of sin. In Ezekiel and Daniel we already meet with the resurrection of the body; in the writers after the captivity this doctrine goes hand in hand with a distinct faith in the immortality of the soul. We cannot doubt that, as Moses and Eleazar made their way down the western side of the mount on which Aaron was left, their thoughts were not only or chiefly centred on the tomb which enclosed his body; they followed him into the assembly of the spirits of the dead, they followed him with their sympathies, with their hopes, their prayers, even though around that world on which he had entered there still hung a veil for them which has been, through Christ’s mercy, removed for us. The Old Testament is sometimes a foreshadowing of the new, sometimes its foil. If Aaron was stripped of his sacerdotal robes on the eve of his death, Jesus our Lord was never more a priest than when He hung upon His Cross, and offered Himself as a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. If Aaron’s dust still lies somewhere among the rocks of Hor, awaiting the summons to judgment, Jesus is indeed risen from the dead, “and become the first fruits of them that slept,” nay, He has already, He has here, “brought life and immortality to light” through His gospel, He has taught us that there is a life which through His grace we may live, and the beauty of which our hearts cannot but own, while yet that life does but mock us if it ends at death, if it does not last, if it does not expand, hereafter. Be has shown us how this life may be, if at present it is not ours, and in possessing it we are already and most assuredly “more than conquerors” of death “through Him that loved us.” (Canon Liddon.)

The death of Aaron

I. The death of Aaron.

1. As a consequence of sin.

2. By the appointment of God.

3. The death of Aaron was his introduction to life and to congenial society.

II. The appointment of Aaron’s successor.

1. Kindness to Aaron. It assured him--

2. A guarantee of the continuance of the Church of God.

III. The mourning because of Aaron’s death.

1. The worth of faithful ministers.

2. The appreciation of blessings when they are withdrawn from us, which were not valued when they were ours.

Lessons:

1. The universality of death.

2. The imperfection of the Aaronic priesthood.

3. The perfection of the priesthood of Christ (Hebrews 7:22-28; Hebrews 8:6; Hebrews 9:23-28; Hebrews 10:10-14). (W. Jones.)

Death of Aaron

I. The time. In the fortieth year of the wanderings.

1. A very important year in the history of Israel. Year of death also of Miriam and of Moses. Dates that mark formation of new or severance of old friendships, always important.

2. In about the 123-4 year of Aaron’s life. A long and eventful life. And yet, though his life was long--

II. The warning. Many pass away without any warning. Duty of being always ready. In this case, a solemn intimation that the time appointed had come. It was kindly framed. “Gathered unto his people.” An old man’s best friends--his people--are mostly in the better world. Aaron invited to join his people; the great ones amongst whom he ranked.

III. The place. A mountain. Reminds us that the good man in death is in death lifted up above the world ; and that, as Aaron at that time, he dies in view of the Church below and the Church above. Israel around, and the promised land before him.

IV. The circumstances. Toilsomely and calmly ascends the hill to be gathered to his fathers. The old man climbing the last of life’s hills. The last stage a rugged one.

V. The characteristics. A death--

1. Hastened by sin.

2. Closing all earthly offices and distinctions.

3. Heralded by solemn intimations.

4. Sweetened by presence of friends.

Learn--

1. A good man in dying is gathered to his people.

2. Seek to live on the borders of heaven that we may die in view of the promised land.

3. Endeavour to do what we have to do while it is called to-day. (J. C. Gray.)

The death of Aaron

I. We may learn a salutary lesson from the death of Aaron in its merely literal bearing. Aaron, the high priest, had to ascend Mount Hor clad in his priestly robes of office; but he must be stripped of them there, because he must die there. He could not carry his dignity or the emblems of it into the next world. He must lay them down at the grave’s brink. There is nothing which the world gives that men can carry with them when death lays hold of them. Even all which outwardly pertains to spiritual dignity, and which brings men into relation with things that are imperishable and eternal, must be left behind, and the individual man, as God’s accountable creature, must appear before his Maker in judgment. There is one thing imperishable and one dignity which even death cannot tarnish. The imperishable thing is the life which the Spirit of God imparts to the soul, and which connects the soul with God. The deathless dignity is that of being children of God.

II. Aaron must be stripped of his robes, and his son clad with them in his stead. This reminds us that while the priests under the law were not suffered to continue by reason of death, yet the office of the priesthood did not lapse. Aaron’s robes were not buried with him. His successor was provided. Yet the very thought that he needed a successor, that the office must be transmitted from one to another, leads us to think of the contrast which the apostle draws between the priests under the law and Him who abideth always. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever. (A. B. Davidson.)

The good and faithful servant

I. The common destiny of man. “Aaron,” says God, “shall be gathered to his people.” Death is spoken of here, not as a strange event, not as something peculiar to Aaron, but as something that had happened to Aaron’s people, and would happen to all generations. Oh, the teeming myriads that preceded us, that carried on the works, the commerce, and the reforms of our world; all these, so far as the body is concerned--all dust!

II. The rigorousness of moral law. Here is a man who had struggled hard for many years in the wilderness, a man filled with high hopes, with glowing enthusiasm, a man who was approaching the goal, approaching the Canaan; and yet mark how, because of one sin, he dies, and never reaches that blessed spot. However distinguished a man may be for his excellences, however high he may be in the Church of God, his sin shall not go unpunished.

III. The termination of life in the midst of labour. We nearly all die with our work unfinished. The farmer dies when he has only half ploughed his field ; the merchant dies in the midst of some commercial enterprise to which he has committed himself; the statesman dies with some great political measure, perhaps, heavy on his hands; the minister dies with some schemes of thought in his brain unwrought out, some plans of usefulness undeveloped. That to me is a profound mystery. I should have thought that a man who had in his brain a great purpose to serve his race, to promote the truth, and to extend the kingdom of Christ, would have his life preserved, that he might realise his purpose. But it is not so. O God! we are not surprised when an old tree, though prolific in its day, dies, for it dies by the law of decay; nor are we astonished that an unfruitful tree should be cut down, for it is a cumberer of the ground; but we are astonished that a tree, with its branches full of sap, with its boughs laden with fruit, with thousands reposing under its shadow, should be struck with a thunderbolt from heaven. Thy path, O God, is “in the great waters, and Thy footsteps are not known.”

IV. God’s agency in man’s dissolution. Why did Aaron die? He was not worn out with age. He was as vigorous, perhaps, at that moment, as anybody here. Not because there was disease rankling in his system, not because there was any external violence applied to him. Why, then, did he die? The Great One determines that he shall die, and he dies. And this, I take it, is always the philosophy of a man’s death. We may ascribe it to that disease, to this accident, to this chance, to this occurrence ; but philosophy, the Bible, and reason all say, “man dies because the Great One has determined that he should die.” If you will ascertain the term of a creature s existence, you can only do it accurately by ascertaining the will of the great God concerning his existence. The constitution has nothing whatever to do with the question. If God determines it, the most robust dies in a moment,

V. The promptitude with which providence supplies the places of the dead. Aaron must die, but there is Eleazar standing by his side ready to step into his place. This is the order of Providence. A merchant dies, and another man stands by his side ready to carry on his business. A lawyer dies, and there is a man standing by his side ready in a moment to step into the place he occupied. A statesman dies, and Providence has a man exactly fitted for his position. Oh, how this encourages my faith in the progress of Divine truth in this world! I see missionaries die in the field, and ministers die in the Church; I see authors die who are moving the minds of men, and influencing them for their highest good; and sometimes I feel, now, surely there must be a pause. But no, there is another minister ready to take the departed minister’s place. You labour, and other men enter into your labours; and when the mystery of godliness shall be finished, I believe the great series of workers will meet and mingle and rejoice together in the presence of the great common Father of us all. But whilst this encourages our faith, it is certainly humbling to our pride. The world can do without thee. Thou art but a blade in the field ; the landscape will bloom without thee. Thou art but a drop in the ocean; the mighty billows will not miss thee. Thou art not at all important.

VI. The trial of human friendships. Moses and Eleazar were very closely related to Aaron. Moses was more than a brother to Aaron. There was a spiritual kindredship between them. There were mental affinities and spiritual affections. Their hearts were welded together by tender feelings and associations, and yet part they must. Oh! I ask the question, leaving you to answer it. Can it be that the great God of love, who has made us to love, and who has disposed us to give our affections to certain men and persons, can it be that He intended that our love should lash within us such storms, and produce so many tears that we have to shed almost daily? The philosophy is here--these friendships are to be renewed. These losses and tears are only a passing storm, clearing the heavens. There is to be a renewal of real spiritual friendship. Eleazar, Moses, thou shalt meet that man whom thou art burying on Mount Hor again! The time is hastening on when a re-union shall take place, and separation never. After all, the separation which takes place in the death of true Christian friends is more in form than in reality--more an appearance than a fact. I have the idea that in truth we become more really friends by the death separation. Death cannot destroy our loving memories of them. Death does not kill--nay, it seems but to intensify our affections. Death seems to bring those who are gone more closely and more vitally into contact with our hearts. Death, I say, does not effect a real separation. Love photographs them in the soul.

VII. The painful recognition by society of its greatest losses. The people mourned for Aaron thirty days. Well might they mourn. If we cannot weep over great and true hearts, over what can we weep? Good men are as fountains welling up in the desert through which you are passing; they are lights in abounding darkness; they are salt that counteracts our tendency to corruption. Thank God for good men! But the Christian minister is the best of all men, and his loss is the greatest of all losses. I know of no man who is rendering such a service to society and to humanity as he! Such was Aaron. He was a minister of God. He had to go in between the corrupt Jews and the Infinite, and to entreat upon their behalf; and more than once did his prayers avert the threatened judgment. Aaron was more than that; he was a speaker, an orator. His words sometimes fell as a thunder-peal upon the proud heart of Egypt’s monarch; but they came down with rays of light, and as the gentle dew, upon the people of Israel. I can fancy Aaron talking to the people about God, about the coming Christianity, about the new dispensation, about the world to come. But he dies; and they mourn. I do not wonder at that. I should have been surprised if they had not wept when they know and felt, We shall see Aaron no more; he has ministered to us for many years, he has given consolation to our old men, a word of advice to the young men, and has talked to the children--and we shall see Aaron no more. (D. Thomas.)

The comforts of Aaron’s death

The comforts of Aaron’s death here are these: The Lord appoints it so, and His will, as it is ever good, so should it ever be our content. Secondly, his son succeedeth him in his place, a great comfort. Thirdly, he shall be freed from all his toil, from all his grief, from an unkind people. Now shall he rest and have peace, and all grief from his heart, all tears from his eyes wiped quite away. “Blessed are the dead that die in the Lord, for they rest from their labours, and their works follow them.” Let it be a comfort to all, and by name to God’s ministers, that faithfully and zealously have watched over their flock, and have reaped but wrong and oppression. God hath His sweet time to release us, and to gather us to our people as He here did Aaron. He will care for our children as here for Aaron’s, and put them in some place or other after us for their good in His great mercy, if we commend them to Him. Our labours shall not be lost with Him that rewardeth a cup of cold water. If we have “sowed in tears we shall reap in joy.” Earth’s woe shall be changed to heaven’s bliss, and happy shall we be. Go on in comfort, be faithful unto the end, the Lord shall give us a crown of life. (Bp. Babington.)

Divestiture and investiture--ministerial succession

1. In these calm, almost cold, words, is told all that man is to know of an event full of interest, mystery, and awe. In that year 1452 (as chronologers say) before the Christian era, a life is brought to its close, which, but for one other life beside it, would have been unique in wonder. That old man who has gone up into Mount Hor, under Divine direction, to die, is God’s high priest; the first of a long line, the only line that God ever consecrated to stand between Himself and His chosen people, in the things of religion and the soul, until He should at last come, who is the End of all Revelation and the Antitype of all Priesthood.

2. Aaron is shut out from Canaan for a fault, for a sin. Judged as man judges, it was a little sin. It was not the greatest of the sins even of this one life. But with God “great” and “little” have no place in the estimate of transgression.

3. The lesson of severity lies on the surface of the record.

4. There is here also the lesson of love. See how God chastens without disowning.

5. There is also the lesson of death. It is the fashion to say that the language of the Old Testament is cheerless about death. I cannot see it. These deaths for small sins seem to be eloquent as to the insignificance of death. They seem to say, “The life that is seen is but a fragment of the whole life.”

6. Nothing is more pathetic in Holy Scripture than that selflessness which God requires in His servants; that absorption of natural feeling in the One higher, which is the perfection of self-control and the self-forgetfulness. Aaron himself had been enabled to rise to it, when he saw his two sons cut off before him, forbidden to mourn, forbidden to bury them. And now it is his brother’s turn to take his part in bearing the burden which God’s ministry lays upon them that are privileged to exercise it. Now he must strip his dying brother of the beautiful and costly vestments of his priesthood. He must array in them a new priest, who is to carry on God’s work before a younger generation. And when the sad and solemn office is ended, he must turn back, with that other, to the thoughts and acts of the living, till he also shall have finished his course, and be ready to rejoin his brother in the Paradise of the just made perfect.

7. There are some forms of ministration which suggest succession. Those garments which are emblematical of office--the judge’s ermine, worn only on the judgment-seat; the bishop’s lawn, put on with prayer and benediction, in the midst of the ceremony of his consecration--speak for themselves as to the disrobing. The wearer had a predecessor, shall have a successor in that ministry. He is but the life-holder: less than the life-holder, for decay of strength may further abridge the tenure of that charge, towards God and man, which the vestment of office typifies. There must be that stripping of which the text speaks; that putting off that another may put on. Let him live in the foreview of that day.

8. Behold in one view the littleness and the greatness of man. The littleness in space and time. One generation goeth, and another cometh. Earth is a speck, and time a moment. But, view life as a trust--view office, view work, view character, view being, as a priesthood--and all is ennobled, all consecrated. Say to yourself, I am God’s priest--I wear His ephod and His crown, and the inscription on that crown is, “Holiness unto the Lord”--then you are great; great above kings, who know not a hereafter; great above hierarchies which would shine in God’s stead; your light is God’s light, and the world shall be the brighter for it. (Dean Vaughan.)

The sin of Moses, and the death of Aaron

I. Faith in God is the regulating grace of the Christian character. So long as that is preserved, it will keep all other principles of our nature in restraint; but when that is lost, the brake is removed from the wheel, and everything goes wrong. The loss of faith leads to panic, and panic is utterly inconsistent with self-control. If we wish to overcome ourselves, then the victory is to be won through faith in God. Mere watchfulness will not suffice; but we must cultivate that confidence in God which believes that all things work together for good to them who love Him; which realises the universality of His providential administration as including the minutest as well as the vastest concerns of life ; and which has the unwavering assurance that we shall enter at last upon our heavenly inheritance.

II. How important it is to be always ready for death. The death of Aaron was not altogether without warning, but in some sense it may be regarded as sudden. There were no premonitions of it in his bodily frame, else he could not have ascended Mount Hor; and when God’s command came, it might take him, and probably did take him, by surprise. Yet he was not appalled, for he believed God, and that kept him in perfect peace. “What, sir,” said a domestic servant, who was sweeping her doorstep, to young Spencer, of Liverpool, as he was hastening by, “is your opinion of sudden death?” He paused a moment; then saying, “Sudden death to the Christian is sudden glory,” he hurried on; and in less than an hour afterward he was drowned while bathing in the Mersey.

III. The place and power of the individual in the onward progress of human society.

1. Ministers and people die, but the Church abides, and carries still forward its beneficent work.

2. We are the heirs of all the preceding generations; and if we act well our part, we shall leave something additional of our own behind us, which shall enrich those who shall come after us. The tabernacle service went on without Aaron, it is true; but if Aaron had not gone before him, Eleazar would not have entered upon such a sphere of usefulness as that which now opened before him. If there bad been no Bacon, there might have been no Newton; and if there had been no Newton, our modern philosophers would not have been what they are.

3. What, then, is the lesson of all this? It is that each of us shall strive to do his utmost in the work to which God has called him, so that we may leave a higher platform for those who shall come after us. (W. M. Taylor, D. D.)

Aaron’s death

Aaron went up to die. Some die in seclusion and unknown; yet it matters not where the saints depart, whether on a mount or in a vale, though, as a typical character, this circumstance seemed to indicate the way of the “spirit, which riseth upwards,” and the destiny of our whole humanity. To him dying was but ascending; and it will be so to all the Lord’s people. The great Representative and Forerunner of the Church died on one mount, and ascended from another. Had not some great truth thereby been to be expressed, Aaron had not attired himself for death as though to enter the holy of holies. It can signify but little what he puts on who is about to lie down in the shroud of dissolution. Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return, said Job. Oh! how do some long for evening, to undress! “ not that they would be unclothed, but clothed upon with their house which is from above.” Yet the priest did not die, but the man. The transfer was made in life: the robes were taken from him while living, and not when dead. The Church was no moment without a priest and an offering. (W. Seaton.)
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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Numbers 20:4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tbi/numbers-20.html. 1905-1909. New York.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, October 20th, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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