Jeremiah 17:1
The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the table of their heart, and upon the horns of your altars;
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(1) A pen of iron.i.e., a stylus, or graving tool, as in Job 19:24, chiefly used for engraving in stone or metal. In Psalm 45:1 it seems to have been used of the instrument with which the scribe wrote on his tablets.

With the point of a diamond.—The word expresses the idea of the hardness rather than the brilliancy of the diamond, and is rendered “adamant” in Ezekiel 3:9; Zechariah 7:12. (For the diamond as a precious stone a different word is used in Exodus 28:18.) Strictly speaking, it was applied only to the diamond-point set in iron used by engravers. Such instruments were known to the Romans (Pliny, Hist. Nat. xxxvii. 15), and may have been in use in Phœnicia or Palestine. The words describe a note of infamy that could not be erased, and this was stamped in upon the tablets of the heart (comp. 2Corinthians 3:3), and blazoned upon the “horns of the altars” of their false worship, or of the true worship of Jehovah which they had polluted and rendered false. The plural “altars” points probably to the former.



Jeremiah 17:1
. - 2 Corinthians 3:3. - Colossians 2:14.

I have put these verses together because they all deal with substantially the same metaphor. The first is part of a prophet’s solemn appeal. It describes the sin of the nation as indelible. It is written in two places. First, on their hearts, which reminds us of the promise of the new covenant to be written on the heart. The ‘red-leaved tablets of the heart’ are like waxen tables on which an iron stylus makes a deep mark, an ineradicable scar. So Judah’s sin is, as it were, eaten into their heart, or, if we might so say, tattooed on it. It is also written on the stone horns of the altar, with a diamond which can cut the rock {an illustration of ancient knowledge of the properties of the diamond}. That sounds a strange place for the record of sin to appear, but the image has profound meaning, as we shall see presently.

Then the two New Testament passages deal with other applications of the same metaphor. Christ is, in the first, represented as writing on the hearts of the Corinthians, and in the second, as taking away ‘the handwriting contrary to us.’ The general thought drawn from all is that sin’s writing on men’s hearts is erased by Christ and a new inscription substituted.

I. The handwriting of sin.

Sin committed is indelibly written on the heart of the doer.

‘The heart,’ of course, in Hebrew means more than merely the supposed seat of the affections. It is figuratively the centre of the spiritual life, just as physically it is the centre of the natural. Thoughts and affections, purposes and desires are all included, and out of it are ‘the issues of life,’ the whole outgoings of the being. It is the fountain and source of all the activity of the man, the central unity from which all comes. Taken in this wide sense it is really the whole inner self that is meant, or, as is said in one place, ‘the hidden man of the heart.’ And so the thought in this vigorous metaphor may be otherwise put, that all sin makes indelible marks on the whole inward nature of the man who does it.

Now to begin with, think for a moment of that truth that everything which we do reacts on us the doers.

We seldom think of this. Deeds are done, and we fancy that when done, they are done with. They pass, as far as outward seeming goes, and their distinguishable consequences in the outward world, in the vast majority of cases, soon apparently pass. All seems evanescent and irrecoverable as last year’s snows, or the water that flowed over the cataract a century ago. But there is nothing more certain than that all which we do leaves indelible traces on ourselves. The mightiest effect of a man’s actions is on his own inward life. The recoil of the gun is more powerful than the blow from its shot. Our actions strike inwards and there produce their most important effects. The river runs ceaselessly and its waters pass away, but they bring down soil, which is deposited and makes firm land, or perhaps they carry down grains of gold.

This is the true solemnity of life, that in all which we do we are carrying on a double process, influencing others indeed, but influencing ourselves far more.

Consider the illustrations of this law in regard to our sins.

Now the last thing people think of when they hear sermons about ‘sin’ is that what is meant is the things that they are doing every day. I can only ask you to try to remember, while I speak, that I mean those little acts of temper, or triflings with truth, or yieldings to passion or anger, or indulgence in sensuality, and above all, the living without God, to which we are all prone.

{a} All wrong-doing makes indelible marks on character. It makes its own repetition easier. Habit strengthens inclination. Peter found denying his Lord three times easier than doing it once. It weakens resistance. In going downhill the first step is the only one that needs an effort; gravity will do the rest.

It drags after it a tendency to other evil. All wrong things have so much in common that they lead on to one another. A man with only one vice is a rare phenomenon. Satan sends his apostles forth two by two. Sins hunt in couples, or more usually in packs, like wolves, only now and then do they prey alone like lions. Small thieves open windows for greater ones. It requires continually increasing draughts, like indulgence in stimulants. The palate demands cayenne tomorrow, if it has had black pepper to-day.

So, whatever else we do by our acts, we are making our own characters, either steadily depraving or steadily improving them. There will come a slight slow change, almost unnoticed but most certain, as a dim film will creep over the peach, robbing it of all its bloom, or some microscopic growth will steal across a clearly cut inscription, or a breath of mist will dim a polished steel mirror.

{b} All wrong-doing writes indelible records on the memory, that awful and mysterious power of recalling past things out of the oblivion in which they seem to lie. How solemn and miserable it is to defile it with the pictures of things evil! Many a man in his later years has tried to ‘turn over a new leaf,’ and has never been able to get the filth out of his memory, for it has been printed on the old page in such strong colours that it shines through. I beseech you all, and especially you young people, to keep yourselves ‘innocent of much transgression,’ and ‘simple concerning evil’-to make your memories like an illuminated missal with fair saints and calm angels bordering the holy words, and not an Illustrated Police News. Probably there is no real oblivion. Each act sinks in as if forgotten, gets overlaid with a multitude of others, but it is there, and memory will one day bring it to us.

And all sin pollutes the imagination. It is a miserable thing to have one’s mind full of ugly foul forms painted on the inner walls of our chamber of imagery, like the hideous figures in some heathen temple, where gods of lust and murder look out from every inch of space on the walls.

{c} All wrong-doing writes indelible records on the conscience. It does so partly by sophisticating it-the sensibility to right and wrong being weakened by every evil act, as a cold in the head takes away the sense of smell. It brings on colour-blindness to some extent. One does not know how far one may go towards ‘Evil! be thou my good’-or how far towards incapacity of distinguishing evil. But at all events the tendency of each sin is in that direction. So conscience may become seared, though perhaps never so completely as that there are no intervals when it speaks. It may long lie dormant, as Vesuvius did, till great trees grow on the floor of the crater, but all the while the communication with the central fires is open, and one day they will burst out.

The writing may be with invisible ink, but it will be legible one day. So, then, all this solemn writing on the heart is done by ourselves. What are you writing? There is a presumption in it of a future retribution, when you will have to read your autobiography, with clearer light and power of judging yourselves. At any rate there is retribution now, which is described by many metaphors, such as sowing and reaping, drinking as we have brewed, and others-but this one of indelible writing is not the least striking.

Sin is graven deep on sinful men’s worship.

The metaphor here is striking and not altogether clear. The question rises whether the altars are idolatrous altars, or Jehovah’s. If the former, the expression may mean simply that the Jews’ idolatry, which was their sin, was conspicuously displayed in these altars, and had, as it were, its most flagrant record in their sacrifices. The altar was the centre point of all heathen and Old Testament worship, and altars built by sinners were the most conspicuous evidences of their sins.

So the meaning would be that men’s sin shapes and culminates in their religion; and that is very true, and explains many of the profanations and abominations of heathenism, and much of the formal worship of so-called Christianity.

For instance, a popular religion which is a mere Deism, a kind of vague belief in a providence, and in a future state where everybody is happy, is but the product of men’s sin, striking out of Christianity all which their sin makes unwelcome in it. The justice of God, punishment, sinfulness of sin, high moral tone, are all gone. And the very horns of their altars are marked with the signs of the worshippers’ sin.

But the ‘altars’ may be God’s altars, and then another idea will come in. The horns of the altar were the places where the blood of the sacrifice was smeared, as token of its offering to God. They were then a part of the ritual of propitiation. They had, no doubt, the same meaning in the heathen ritual. And so regarded, the metaphor means that a sense of the reality of sin shapes sacrificial religion.

There can be no doubt that a very real conviction of sin lies at the foundation of much, if not all, of the system of sacrifices. And it is a question well worth considering whether a conviction so widespread is not valid, and whether we should not see in it the expression of a true human need which no mere culture, or the like, will supply.

At all events, altars stand as witnesses to the consciousness of sin. And the same thought may be applied to much of the popular religion of this day. It may be ineffectual and shallow but it bears witness to a consciousness of evil. So its existence may be used in order to urge profounder realisation of evil on men. You come to worship, you join in confessions, you say ‘miserable sinners’-do you mean anything by it? If all that be true, should it not produce a deeper impression on you?

But another way of regarding the metaphor is this. The horns of the altar were to be touched with the blood of propitiation. But look! the blood flows down, and after it has trickled away, there, deep carven on the horns, still appears the sin, i.e. the sin is not expiated by the sinner’s sacrifice. Jeremiah is then echoing Isaiah’s word, ‘Bring no more vain oblations.’ The picture gives very strikingly the hopelessness, so far as men are concerned, of any attempt to blot out this record. It is like the rock-cut cartouches of Egypt on which time seems to have no effect. There they abide deep for ever. Nothing that we can do can efface them. ‘What I have written, I have written.’ Pen-knives and detergents that we can use are all in vain.

II. Sin’s writing may be erased, and another put in its place.

The work of Christ, made ours by faith, blots it out.

{a} Its influence on conscience and the sense of guilt. The accusations of conscience are silenced. A red line is drawn across the indictment, or, as Colossians has it, it is ‘nailed to the cross.’ There is power in His death to set us free from the debt we owe.

{b} Its influence on memory. Christ does not bring oblivion, but yet takes away the remorse of remembrance. Faith in Christ makes memory no longer a record which we blush to turn over, or upon which we gloat with imaginative delight in guilty pleasures past, but a record of our shortcomings that humbles us with a penitence which is not pain, but serves as a beacon and warning for the time to come. He who has a clear beam of memory on his backward track, and a bright light of hope on his forward one, will steer right.

{c} Its influence on character.

We attain new hopes and tastes. ‘We become epistles of Christ known and read of all men,’ like palimpsests, Homer or Ovid written over with the New Testament gospels or epistles.

Christ’s work is twofold, erasure and rewriting. For the one, ‘I will blot out as a cloud their transgressions.’ None but He can remove these. For the other, ‘I will put My law into their minds and will write it on their hearts.’ He can impress all holy desires on, and can put His great love and His mighty spirit into, our hearts.

So give your hearts to Him. They are all scrawled over with hideous and wicked writing that has sunk deep into their substance. Graven as if on rock are your sins in your character. Your worship and sacrifices will not remove them, but Jesus Christ can. He died that you might be forgiven, He lives that you may be purified. Trust yourself to Him, and lean all your sinfulness on His atonement and sanctifying power, and the foul words and bad thoughts that have been scored so deep into your nature will be erased, and His own hand will trace on the page, poor and thin though it be, which has been whitened by His blood, the fair letters and shapes of His own likeness. Do not let your hearts be the devil’s copybooks for all evil things to scrawl their names there, as boys do on the walls, but spread them before Him, and ask Him to make them clean and write upon them His new name, indicating that you now belong to another, as a new owner writes his name on a book that he has bought.

Jeremiah 17:1-2. The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron — Many of the Jews, though living in the habitual commission of the grossest crimes, were, nevertheless, self-righteous, and thought they did not deserve that God should enter into judgment with them in any such way as Jeremiah foretold he would do. Wherefore, said they, hath the Lord pronounced all this great evil against us? What is our iniquity? What is our sin? chap. Jeremiah 16:10. Here the prophet tells them their sin was too plain to be denied, and too bad to be excused: that it was written in indelible characters, not only before God, to whose omniscience it lay continually open, but in their own hearts and consciences; as if written with a pen of iron, or an engraving instrument, or the point of a diamond; instruments employed to make durable inscriptions on hard substances. As if he had said, Their sins are as manifest, and the remembrance of them as durable, as the memorable actions which have been engraven on pillars of stone, or tablets of brass, to give them notoriety, and preserve them from oblivion. The expression, it is graven upon the table of their hearts, may also be intended to signify the rooted affection which they had to sin, especially to the sin of idolatry; that it was woven into their very nature, and was as dear to them as that is to us, of which we say, It is engraven on our hearts. In like manner, their idolatrous altars and other monuments of their heathenish superstitions, were undeniable tokens of the corrupt inclinations of their hearts, which were altogether estranged from God and his true worship. Or their sin might be said to be engraven on the horns of their altars, because the blood of the sacrifices which they offered to their idols was sprinkled there, or because their altars had some inscription upon them, declaring to what idol each altar was consecrated. Whilst their children remember their altars — This shows how inveterate they were in this sin of idolatry, that they taught it to their children.

17:1-4 The sins which men commit make little impression on their minds, yet every sin is marked in the book of God; they are all so graven upon the table of the heart, that they will all be remembered by the conscience. That which is graven in the heart will become plain in the life; men's actions show the desires and purposes of their hearts. What need we have to humble ourselves before God, who are so vile in his sight! How should we depend on his mercy and grace, begging of God to search and prove us; not to suffer us to be deceived by our own hearts, but to create in us a clean and holy nature by his Spirit!This section Jeremiah 17:1-4 is inseparably connected with the preceding. Judah's sin had been described Jeremiah 16:19 as one of which the very Gentiles will become ashamed. and for which she will shortly be punished by, an intervention of God's hand more marked than anything in her previous history. Jeremiah now dwells upon the indelible nature of her sin.

A pen of iron - i. e., an iron chisel for cutting inscriptions upon tables of stone.

The point of a diamond - The ancients were well acquainted with the cutting powers of the diamond.

Altars - Not Yahweh's one altar, but the many altars which the Jews had set up to Baalim Jeremiah 11:13. Though Josiah had purged the land of these, yet in the eleven years of Jehoiakim's reign they had multiplied again, and were the external proofs of Judah's idolatry, as the table of her heart was the internal witness.


Jer 17:1-27. The Jews' Inveterate Love of Idolatry.

The the Septuagint omits the first four verses, but other Greek versions have them.

1. The first of the four clauses relates to the third, the second to the fourth, by alternate parallelism. The sense is: They are as keen after idols as if their propensity was "graven with an iron pen (Job 19:24) on their hearts," or as if it were sanctioned by a law "inscribed with a diamond point" on their altars. The names of their gods used to be written on "the horns of the altars" (Ac 17:23). As the clause "on their hearts" refers to their inward propensity, so "on … altars," the outward exhibition of it. Others refer "on the horns of … altars" to their staining them with the blood of victims, in imitation of the Levitical precept (Ex 29:12; Le 4:7, 18), but "written … graven," would thus be inappropriate.

table of … heart—which God intended to be inscribed very differently, namely, with His truths (Pr 3:3; 2Co 3:3).

your—Though "their" preceded, He directly addresses them to charge the guilt home to them in particular.The captivity of Judah for her sin, Jeremiah 17:1-4. Trust in man cursed; in God, blessed, Jeremiah 17:5-8. The deceitful heart and most secret practices are known to God, Jeremiah 17:9-11. The salvation of God, Jeremiah 17:12-14. The prophet complaineth of the mockers of his prophecies, Jeremiah 17:15-18. Of keeping the sabbath, Jeremiah 17:19-27.

There is much arguing amongst those that are critical about the true signification of words, what is here signified by dyjv which we translate a diamond; most agree that it doth not signify a diamond, (not used in engraving,) but that by the pen of iron, and the point of a diamond, are meant some tools with which they were wont to engrave things upon hard substances; it may be made in a figure resembling the claw of a bird, as the word seemeth to import.

It is graven upon the table of their heart; it is graven in their hearts; they are so accustomed to sin, so inured to idolatry, that there is no hope of any reclaiming them. For how can they that are accustomed to do evil, do well?

And upon the horns of your altars; nor is it a thing done in secret, but it is written, or painted, or engraven upon the horns of their altars. God’s altar was foursquare, and at each corner there was a rising part made of brass something high, these were called the horns of the altar. See Exodus 27:2 Ezekiel 43:15,16. Now their sin is either said to be engraven or published upon the horns of the altar, because the blood of the sacrifices which they offered to idols was sprinkled there, or because their altars had some inscription upon them, declaring to what idol that altar was consecrated, as the altar of Athens had.

The sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron,.... Or an iron tool, such as engravers use in working on hard matter:

and with the point of a diamond; such as glaziers use in cutting their glass; though this is not the word used for a diamond in Exodus 28:18, this word is elsewhere translated an adamant, Ezekiel 3:9. Bothart (h) takes it to be the smiris, which jewellers use in polishing their gems. Jarchi makes mention of a Midrash, or exposition, which explains the iron pen of Jeremiah, and the point of the adamant, or diamond, of Ezekiel, because of what is said of them, Jeremiah 1:18. Kimchi thinks the word "shamir", rendered "diamond", is expressive of the subject matter on which their sin is said to be written, and not of the instrument with which; and then it is to be read thus,

"the sin of Judah is written with an iron pen (with an iron claw, or nail, of which mention is made in some Jewish writings) upon "shamir", or an adamant stone;''

which is no other than their stony heart, as it follows:

it is graven upon the table of their heart; where it is so fixed that it cannot be rooted out, and will never be forgotten by them, but always remembered and desired; for which they have the strongest affections, having a place, and having made deep impressions there: or this may denote the evidence of it in their own consciences, which bore witness to it, and which they could not deny:

and upon the horns of your altars; on which the names of their idols were engraven or inscribed, Acts 17:23, so that their idolatry was notorious; their consciences within, and their altars without, were testimonies of it and besides, the blood of the sacrifices was poured upon the horns of the altar, Leviticus 4:7 and which, as it was done at the offering of sacrifices appointed of God, so very probably at the offering of sacrifices to idols, and which made their sin notorious; yea, even all the sacrifices of the ceremonial law were a standing testimony of their being sinners, and carried in them a confession of sin, and that they were deserving of death, and so were a handwriting against them; for there is no need to limit the sin of Judah here to idolatry, but it may include all their sins; and so the Targum expresses it in the plural number,

"the sins of Judah;''

though, if any particular sin is intended, it seems to be idolatry, by what follows.

(h) Hierozoic. par. 2. l. 6. c. 11, col. 842. of which stone, see Dioseorides, Hesychius, & Stephanus in ib.

The sin of Judah is {a} written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond: it is graven upon the {b} tablet of their heart, and upon the horns of your {c} altars;

(a) The remembrance of their contempt of God cannot pass, although for a time he defers the punishment, for it will be revealed to men and angels.

(b) Instead of the law of God, they have written idolatry and all abomination in their heart.

(c) Your sins appear in all the altars that you have erected to idols.

1. a pen of iron] used for making permanent marks on a hard surface, e.g. on rocks (Job 19:24).

diamond] as used now by glaziers on account of its extreme hardness. Pliny tells us (Hist. Nat. Jeremiah 37:15) that the ancients were well acquainted with the cutting powers of the diamond, and used to set it in iron. Judah’s guilt is, as it were, indelibly engraved upon their utterly hard hearts.

the table of their heart] their inward nature. Cp. Proverbs 3:3; Proverbs 7:3.

horns] probably metal projections from the corners (Exodus 27:2).

your] better read, as in mg. (with LXX) their.

Jeremiah 17:1-4. See introd. summary to section.

The vv. are omitted in LXX, either (as St Jerome suggests) from unwillingness that the lasting condemnation here expressed should be put on permanent record against them, or because a translator’s eye accidentally wandered from the last word of Jeremiah 16:21 to the same (“the Lord”) in Jeremiah 17:5. Jeremiah 17:3 f. are repeated from Jeremiah 15:13 f., where the LXX rendering exists. The passage is doubtless genuine, though the text is difficult and probably not free from corruption.

Verse 1. - The sin of Judah, etc. "Judah's sin" is not merely their tendency to sin, but their sinful practices - their idolatry. This is said to be graven upon the table of their heart, for it is no mere form, but carried on with passionate earnestness, and as indelible as if engraved with an iron pen. How unlike, however, is this record to that of which the same expression is used in Job 19:24! With the point of a diamond; or, with a point of adamant (harder than flint, as Ezekiel 3:9 says). Fragments of adamant, says Pliny ('Hist. Nat.,' 37:15), are sought out by engravers and enclosed in iron; they easily overcome every hardness. Upon the horns of your altars. First of all, what altars are referred to? Those erected for the worship of idols or the two in the temple of Jehovah, which had been defiled by idolatry? And why is the sin of Judah said to be engraved upon the horns of the altars? Probably because the "horns," i.e. the projections at the four upper corners (Exodus 28:2) were smeared with the blood of the victims. The direction in Exodus 29:12 and Leviticus 4:7 was doubtless not peculiar to the ritual of the Law. Jeremiah 17:1Judah's sin is ineffaceably stamped upon the hearts of the people and on their altars. These four verses are closely connected with the preceding, and show why it is necessary that Judah be cast forth amidst the heathen, by reason of its being perfectly stepped in idolatry. Jeremiah 17:1. "The sin of Judah is written with an iron pen, with the point of a diamond graven on the table of their hearts and on the horns of your altars. Jeremiah 17:2. As they remember their children, so do they their altars and their Astartes by the green tree upon the high hills. Jeremiah 17:3. My mountain in the field, thy substance, all thy treasures give I for a prey, thy high places for sin in all thy borders. Jeremiah 17:4. And thou shalt discontinue, and that of thine own self, from thine inheritance that I gave thee, and I cause thee to serve thine enemies in a land which thou knowest not; for a fire have ye kindled in mine anger, for ever it burneth."

The sin of Judah (Jeremiah 17:1) is not their sinfulness, their proneness to sin, but their sinful practices, idolatry. This is written upon the tables of the hearts of them of Judah, i.e., stamped on them (cf. for this figure Proverbs 3:3; Proverbs 7:3), and that deep and firmly. This is intimated by the writing with an iron pen and graving with a diamond. צפּרן, from צפר, scratch, used in Deuteronomy 21:12 for the nail of the finger, here of the point of the style or graving-iron, the diamond pencil which gravers use for carving in iron, steel, and stone.

(Note: Cf. Plinii hist. n. xxxvii. 15: crustae adamantis expetuntur a sculptoribus ferroque includuntur, nullam non duritiem ex facili excavantes.)

שׁמיר, diamond, not emery as Boch. and Ros. supposed; cf. Ezekiel 3:9; Zechariah 7:12. The things last mentioned are so to be distributed that "on the table of their heart" shall belong to "written with a pen of iron," and "on the horns of their altars" to "with the point of a diamond grave." The iron style was used only for writing or carving letters in a hard material, Job 19:24. If with it one wrote on tables, it was for the purpose of impressing the writing very deeply, so that it could not easily be effaced. The having of sin engraved upon the tables of the heart does not mean that a sense of unatoned sin could not be got rid of (Graf); for with a sense of sin we have here nothing to do, but with the deep and firm root sin has taken in the heart. To the tables of the heart as the inward seat of sin are opposed the horns of their altars (at "altars" the discourse is directly addressed to the Jews). By altars are generally understood idolatrous altars, partly because of the plural, "since the altar of Jahveh was but one," partly because of Jeremiah 17:2, where the altars in question are certainly those of the idols. But the first reason proves nothing, since the temple of the Lord itself contained two altars, on whose horns the blood of the sacrifice was sprinkled. The blood of the sin-offering was put not merely on the altar of burnt-offering, but also on the horns of the altar of incense, Leviticus 4:7-8; Leviticus 16:16. Nor is the second reason conclusive, since there is no difficulty in taking it to be the altars of Jahveh as defiled by idolatry. This, indeed, we must do, since Josiah had destroyed the altars of the false gods, whereas here the altars are spoken of as existing monuments of idolatry. The question, in how far the sin of Judah is ineffaceably engraven upon the horns of her altars, is variously answered by comm., and the answer depends on the view taken of Jeremiah 17:2, which is itself disputed. It is certainly wrong to join Jeremiah 17:2 as protasis with Jeremiah 17:3 as apodosis, for it is incompatible with the beginning of Jeremiah 17:3, הררי. Ew. therefore proposes to attach "my mountain in the field" to Jeremiah 17:2, and to change הררי into הררי: upon the high hills, the mountains in the field - a manifest makeshift. Umbr. translates: As their children remember their will I my mountain in the field, thy possession...give for a prey; and makes out the sense to be: "in proportion to the strength and ineffaceableness of the impressions, such as are to be found in the children of idolatrous fathers, must be the severity of the consequent punishment from God." But if this were the force, then כּן could not possibly be omitted before the apodosis; apart altogether from the suddenness of such a transition from the sins of the people (Jeremiah 17:1) to the sins of the children.

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