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Suffering and the Sovereignty of God

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Suffering and the Sovereignty of God:

Ten Aspects of God’s Sovereignty Over

Suffering and Satan’s Hand in It

John Piper

The impetus for this book comes from the ultimate reality of God as

the supreme value in and above the universe. God is absolute and

eternal and infinite. Everything else and everybody else is dependent and

finite and contingent. God himself is the great supreme value. Everything

else that has any value has it by connection to God. God is supreme in

all things. He has all authority, all power, all wisdom—and he is all good

“to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him” (Lam. 3:25).

And his name, as Creator and Redeemer and Ruler of all, is Jesus Christ.

In the last few years, 9/11, tsunamis, Katrina, and ten thousand personal

losses have helped us discover how little the American church is

rooted in this truth. David Wells, in his new book, Above All Earthly

Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World, says it like this:

This moment of tragedy and evil [referring to 9/11] shone its own light

on the Church and what we came to see was not a happy sight. For

what has become conspicuous by its scarcity, and not least in the evangelical

corner of it, is a spiritual gravitas, one which could match the

depth of horrendous evil and address issues of such seriousness.

Evangelicalism, now much absorbed by the arts and tricks of marketing,

is simply not very serious anymore.1

he Sovereignty of God:

In other words, our vision of God in relation to evil and suffering was

shown to be frivolous. The church has not been spending its energy to

go deep with the unfathomable God of the Bible. Against the overwhelming

weight and seriousness of the Bible, much of the church is

choosing, at this very moment, to become more light and shallow and

entertainment-oriented, and therefore successful in its irrelevance to

massive suffering and evil. The popular God of fun-church is simply too

small and too affable to hold a hurricane in his hand. The biblical categories

of God’s sovereignty lie like land mines in the pages of the Bible

waiting for someone to seriously open the book. They don’t kill, but they

do explode trivial notions of the Almighty.

So my prayer for this book is that God would stand forth and

reassert his Creator-rights in our lives, and show us his crucified and

risen Son who has all authority in heaven and on earth, and waken in

us the strongest faith in the supremacy of Christ, and the deepest comforts

in suffering, and the sweetest fellowship with Jesus that we have

ever known.

The contributors to this volume have all suffered, some more visibly

than others. You don’t need to know the details. Suffice it to say that

none of them is dealing with a theoretical issue in this book. They live

in the world of pain and loss where you live. They are aware that some

people reading this book are dying. There are people who love those

who are dying; people who live with chronic pain; people who have just

lost one of the most precious persons in their life; people who do not

believe in the goodness of God—or in God at all—who count this book

their one last effort to see if the gospel is real. People who are about to

enter a time of suffering in their life for which they are totally unprepared.

These authors are not naïve about life or about who you are. We

are glad you are reading this book—all of you. And we pray that you

will never be the same again.

The approach I am going to take in this chapter is not to solve any

problem directly, but to celebrate the sovereignty of God over Satan and

his sovereignty over all the evils that Satan has a hand in. My conviction

is that letting God speak his word will awaken worship—like Job’s—and

worship will shape our hearts to understand whatever measure of God’s

mystery he wills for us to know. What follows is a celebration of “Ten

Aspects of God’s Sovereignty Over Suffering and Satan’s Hand in It.”

And what I mean in this chapter when I say that God is sovereign is not

merely that God has the power and right to govern all things, but that he

does govern all things, for his own wise and holy purposes.

1. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s

Delegated World Rule

Satan is sometimes called in the Bible “the ruler of this world” (John

12:31; 14:30; 16:11), or “the god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4), or “the

prince of the power of the air” (Eph. 2:2), or a “cosmic power over this

present darkness” (Eph. 6:12). This means that we should probably take

him seriously when we read in Luke 4:5-7 that “the devil took [Jesus]

up and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time,

and said to him, ‘To you I will give all this authority and their glory, for

it has been delivered to me, and I give it to whom I will. If you, then,

will worship me, it will all be yours.’”

And of course that is strictly true: if the sovereign of the universe

bows in worshipful submission to anyone, that one becomes the

sovereign of the universe. But Satan’s claim that he can give the authority

and glory of world kingdoms to whomever he wills is a half truth.

No doubt he does play havoc in the world by maneuvering a Stalin or

a Hitler or an Idi Amin or a Bloody Mary or a Saddam Hussein into

murderous power. But he does this only at God’s permission and within

God’s appointed limits.

This is made clear over and over again in the Bible. For example,

Daniel 2:20-21: “Daniel answered and said: ‘Blessed be the name of God

forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times

and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings’”; and Daniel 4:17:

“The Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he

will.” When the kings are in their God-appointed place, with or without

Satan’s agency, they are in the sway of God’s sovereign will, as

Proverbs 21:1 says: “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand

of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.”

Evil nations rise and set themselves against the Almighty. “The kings

of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against

the LORD and against his anointed, saying, ‘Let us burst their bonds

apart and cast away their cords from us.’ He who sits in the heavens

laughs; the Lord holds them in derision” (Ps. 2:2-4). Do they think that

their sin and evil and rebellion against him can thwart the counsel of the

Lord? Psalm 33:10-11 answers, “The LORD brings the counsel of the

nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples. The counsel

of the LORD stands forever, the plans of his heart to all generations.”

God is sovereign over the nations and over all their rulers and all

the satanic power behind them. They do not move without his permission,

and they do not move outside his sovereign plan.

2. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s Angels

(Demons, Evil Spirits)

Satan has thousands of cohorts in supernatural evil. They are called

“demons” (Matt. 8:31; James 2:19), or “evil spirits” (Luke 7:21), or

“unclean spirits” (Matt. 10:1), or “the devil and his angels” (Matt.

25:41). We get a tiny glimpse into demonic warfare in Daniel 10 where

the angel who is sent in response to Daniel’s prayer says, “The prince of

the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one

of the chief princes, came to help me” (Dan. 10:13). So apparently the

demon, or evil spirit, over Persia fought against the angel sent to help

Daniel, and a greater angel, Michael, came to his aid.

But the Bible leaves us with no doubt as to who is in charge in all

these skirmishes. Martin Luther got it right:

And though this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph through us.

The prince of darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,

For lo! his doom is sure;

One little word will fell him.2

We see glimpses of those little words at work, for example, when

Jesus comes up against thousands of demons in Matthew 8:29-32. They

were possessing a man and making him insane. The demons cry out,

“What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to

torment us before the time?” (They know a time is set for their final

destruction.) And Jesus spoke to them one little word: “Go,” and they

came out of the man. There is no question who is sovereign in this battle.

The people had seen this before and were amazed and said, “He

commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him” (Mark 1:27).

They obey him. As for Satan: “We tremble not for him; his rage we can

endure.” But as for Christ: even though they slay him, they always must

obey him! God is sovereign over Satan’s angels.

3. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s Hand in

Persecution

The apostle Peter describes the suffering of Christians like this: “Your

adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone

to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds

of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the

world” (1 Pet. 5:8-9). So the sufferings of persecution are like the jaws

of a satanic lion trying to consume and destroy the faith of believers in

Christ.

But do these Christians suffer in Satan’s jaws of persecution apart

from the sovereign will of God? When Satan crushes Christians in the

jaws of their own private Calvary, does God not govern those jaws

for the good of his precious child? Listen to Peter’s answer in 1 Peter

3:17: “It is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s

will, than for doing evil.” In other words, if God wills that we suffer

for doing good, we will suffer. And if he does not will that we suffer

for doing good, we will not. The lion does not have the last say. God

does.

The night Jesus was arrested, satanic power was in full force (Luke

22:3, 31). And Jesus spoke into that situation one of his most sovereign

words. He said to those who came to arrest him in the dark: “Have you

come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs? When I was with

you day after day in the temple, you did not lay hands on me. But this

is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:52-53). The jaws of

the lion close on me tonight no sooner and no later than my Father

planned. “No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own

accord” (John 10:18). Boast not yourself over the hand that made you,

Satan. You have one hour. What you do, do quickly. God is sovereign

over Satan’s hand in persecution.

4. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s

Life-Taking Power

The Bible does not take lightly or minimize the power of Satan to kill

people, including Christians. Jesus said in John 8:44, “You are of your

father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a

murderer from the beginning.” John tells us, in fact, that he does indeed

take the lives of faithful Christians. Revelation 2:10, “Do not fear what

you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you

into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have

tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of

life.”

Is God then not the Lord of life and death? He is. None lives and

none dies but by God’s sovereign decree. “See now that I, even I, am he,

and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal;

and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut. 32:39). There

is no god, no demon, no Satan that can snatch to death any person that

God wills to live (see 1 Sam. 2:6).

James, the brother of Jesus, says this in a stunning way in James

4:13-16:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such

and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a

profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is

your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.

Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do

this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting

is evil.

 

If the Lord wills, we will live. And if he doesn’t, we will die. God, not

Satan, makes the final call. Our lives are ultimately in his hands, not

Satan’s. God is sovereign over Satan’s life-taking power.

5. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s Hand

in Natural Disasters

Hurricanes, tsunamis, tornadoes, earthquakes, blistering heat, deadly

cold, drought, flood, famine. When Satan approached God in the first

chapter of Job, he challenged God, “Stretch out your hand and touch

all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (v. 11).Then the Lord

said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your hand. Only against him

do not stretch out your hand” (v. 12).

The result was two human atrocities and two natural disasters. One

of the disasters is reported to Job in verse 16: “The fire of God fell from

heaven [probably lightning] and burned up the sheep and the servants

and consumed them, and I alone have escaped to tell you.” And then

the worst report of all in verses 18-19, “Your sons and daughters were

eating and drinking wine in their oldest brother’s house, and behold, a

great wind came across the wilderness and struck the four corners of the

house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead.”

Even though God had loosened the leash of Satan to do this, it is

not what Job focused on. “Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his

head and fell on the ground and worshiped. And he said, ‘Naked I came

from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return. The LORD gave, and

the LORD has taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD’” (Job 1:20-

21). And the inspired writer added: “In all this Job did not sin or charge

God with wrong.”

Job had discovered with many of you that it is small comfort to

focus on the freedom of Satan to destroy. In the academic classroom and

in the apologetics discussion, the agency of Satan in our suffering may

lift a little the burden of God’s sovereignty for some; but for others, like

Job, there is more security and more relief and more hope and more support

and more glorious truth in despising Satan’s hateful hand and looking

straight past him to God for the cause and for his mercy.

Elihu helped Job see this mercy in Job 37:10-14. He said:

By the breath of God ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast.

He loads the thick cloud with moisture; the clouds scatter his lightning.

They turn around and around by his guidance, to accomplish all that

he commands them on the face of the habitable world. Whether for

correction or for his land or for love, he causes it to happen. Hear this,

O Job; stop and consider the wondrous works of God.

Job’s first impulses in chapter 1 were exactly right. When James

wrote in the New Testament about the purpose of the book of Job, this

is what he said: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you

have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and

merciful” (James 5:11).

God, not Satan, is the final ruler of wind—and the waves. Jesus

woke from sleep and, with absolute sovereignty, which he had from all

eternity and has this very moment, said, “‘Peace! Be still!’ And the wind

ceased, and there was a great calm” (Mark 4:39; see Ps. 135:5-7;

148:7). Satan is real and terrible. All his designs are hateful. But he is

not sovereign. God is. And when Satan went out to do Job harm, Job

was right to worship with the words “The LORD gave, and the LORD has

taken away; blessed be the name of the LORD.”

There’s not a plant or flower below,

But makes Thy glories known;

And clouds arise, and tempests blow,

By order from Thy throne.3

 

6. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s

Sickness-Causing Power

The Bible is vivid with the truth that Satan can cause disease. Acts 10:38

says that Jesus “went about doing good and healing all who were

oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.” The devil had oppressed

people with sickness. In Luke 13 Jesus finds a woman who had been bent

over, unable to stand up for eighteen years. He heals her on the Sabbath,

and in response to the criticism of the synagogue ruler he says, “Ought

not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen

years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” (v. 16). There

is no doubt that Satan causes much disease.

This is why Christ’s healings are a sign of the in-breaking of the

kingdom of God and its final victory over all disease and all the works

of Satan. It is right and good to pray for healing. God has purchased it

in the death of his Son, with all the other blessings of grace, for all his

children (Isa. 53:5). But he has not promised that we get the whole inheritance

in this life. And he decides how much. We pray, and we trust his

answer. If you ask your Father for bread, he will not give you a stone.

If you ask him for a fish, he will not give you a serpent (see Matt. 7:9-

10). It may not be bread. And it may not be a fish. But it will be good

for you. That is what he promises (Rom. 8:28).

But beware lest anyone say that Satan is sovereign in our diseases.

He is not. When Satan went to God a second time in the book of Job,

God gave him permission this time to strike Job’s body. Then “Satan

went out from the presence of the LORD and smote Job with sore boils

from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head” (Job 2:7, AT). When

Job’s wife despaired and said, “Curse God and die” (2:9),” Job

responded exactly as he did before. He looked past the finite cause of

Satan to the ultimate cause of God and said, “Shall we receive good from

God, and shall we not accept evil?” (2:10, AT).

And lest we attribute error or irreverence to Job, the writer closes the

book in the last chapter by referring to Job’s terrible suffering like this:

“Then came to him all his brothers and sisters. . . . and comforted him

for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him” (42:11). Satan is

real and full of hate, but he is not sovereign in sickness. God will not give

him even that tribute. As he says to Moses at the burning bush, “Who

has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or

blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” (Ex. 4:11; see also 2 Cor. 12:7-9).

7. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s Use of

Animals and Plants

The imagery of Satan as a lion in 1 Peter 5:8 and as a “great dragon” in

Revelation 12:9 and as the “serpent of old” in Genesis 3 simply makes

us aware that in his destructive work Satan can, and no doubt does,

employ animals and plants—from the lion in the Coliseum, to the black

fly that causes river blindness, to the birds that carry the avian flu virus,

to the pit bull that attacks a child, to the bacteria in your belly that doctors

Barry Marshall and Robin Warren recently discovered cause ulcers

(winning for them the Nobel Prize in medicine). If Satan can kill and

cause disease, no doubt he has at his disposal many large and microscopic

plants and animals.

But he cannot make them do what God forbids them to do. From

the giant Leviathan that God made to sport in the sea (Ps. 104:26) to

the tiny gnats that he summoned over the land of Egypt (Ex. 8:16-17),

God commands the world of animals and plants. The most vivid demonstrations

of it are in the book of Jonah. “The LORD appointed a great

fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17). And it did exactly as it had been

appointed. “And the LORD spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out

upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10). “Now the LORD God appointed a

plant and made it come up over Jonah” (Jonah 4:6). “But when dawn

came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the plant,

so that it withered” (Jonah 4:7).

Fish, plant, worm—all appointed, all obedient. Satan can have a

hand here, but he is not sovereign. God is.

8. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s

Temptations to Sin

Much of our suffering comes from the sins of others against us and from

our own sins. Satan is called in the Bible “the tempter” (Matt. 4:3;

1 Thess. 3:5). This was the origin on earth of all the misery that we

know—Satan tempted Eve to sin, and sin brought with it the curse of

God on the natural order (Gen. 3:14-19; Rom. 8:21-23). Since that time

Satan has been tempting all human beings to do what will hurt themselves

and others.

But the most famous temptations in the Bible do not portray Satan

as sovereign in his tempting work. The Bible tells us in Luke 22:3-4 that

“Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot. . . . He went away and conferred

with the chief priests and officers how he might betray him to

them.” But Luke tells us that the betrayal of Jesus by Judas was the fulfillment

of Scripture: “The Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy

Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas”

(Acts 1:16). And therefore Peter said that Jesus was “delivered up

according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” (Acts 2:23).

As with Job, the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away—the life of

his Son, Jesus Christ. Satan was not in charge of the crucifixion of

Christ. God was.

Even more famous than the temptation of Judas is the temptation

of Peter. We usually think of Peter’s three denials, not his temptation. But

Jesus says something to Peter in Luke 22:31-32 that makes plain Satan

is at work here but that he is not sovereign: “Simon, Simon, behold,

Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I

have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have

turned again [not: if you turn], strengthen your brothers.” Again, as with

Job, Satan seeks to destroy Peter’s faith. God gives Satan leash, but Jesus

intercedes for Peter, and says with complete sovereignty, “I have prayed

for you. You will fall, but not utterly. When you repent and turn back—

not if you turn back—strengthen your brothers.”

Satan is not sovereign in the temptations of Judas or Peter or you

or those you love. God is.

9. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s

Mind-Blinding Power

The worst suffering of all is the everlasting suffering of hell. Satan is

doomed to experience that suffering. Revelation 20:10 says, “The devil

who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where

the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and

night forever and ever.” Satan’s aim is to take as many there with him

as he can. To do that, he must keep people blind to the gospel of Jesus

Christ, because the gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone

who believes” (Rom. 1:16). No one goes to hell who is justified by

the blood of Christ. “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his

blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God”

(Rom. 5:9). Only those who fail to embrace the wrath-absorbing substitutionary

work of Christ will suffer the wrath of God.

Therefore, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:4, “In their case the god of

this world [Satan] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them

from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image

of God.” This blinding is the most deadly weapon in the arsenal of

Satan. If he succeeds with a person, the suffering will be endless.

But at this most critical point Satan is not sovereign, God is. And

oh, how thankful we should be! Two verses later in 2 Corinthians 4:6

Paul describes God’s blindness-removing power over against Satan’s

blinding power. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’

has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory

of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” The comparison is between God’s

creating light at the beginning of the world and God’s creating light in

the darkened human heart. With total sovereignty God said at the

beginning and at your new birth, “Let there be light.” And there was

light.

We were dead in our trespasses and sins, but in great mercy God

made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:5). We were blind and spiritually

dead. We saw nothing compelling or beautiful in the gospel. It was

foolishness to us (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). But God spoke with sovereign

Creator authority, and his word created life and spiritual sight, and we

saw the glory of Christ in the gospel and believed. Satan is a terrible

enemy of the gospel. But he is not sovereign. God is. This is the reason

that any of us is saved.

10. Let Us Celebrate That God Is Sovereign Over Satan’s

Spiritual Bondage

Satan enslaves people in two ways. One way is with the misery and suffering

that comes from making us think there is no good God worth

trusting. The other way is with pleasure and prosperity, making us think

we have all we need so that God is irrelevant. To be freed from this

bondage we must repent. We must confess that God is good and trustworthy.

We must confess that the pleasures and prosperity of life do not

compare to the worth of God. But Satan hates this repentance and does

all he can to prevent it. That is his bondage.

But when God chooses to overcome our rebellion and Satan’s resistance,

nothing can stop him. And when God overcomes him and us, we

repent and Satan’s power is broken. Here it is in 2 Timothy 2:24-26:

And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone,

able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with

gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a

knowledge of the truth, and they may escape from the snare of the

devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Satan is not sovereign over his captives. God is. When God grants

repentance, we are set free from the snare of the devil, and we spend our

days celebrating our liberation and spreading it to others.

The One and Only Sovereign

The evil and suffering in this world are greater than any of us can comprehend.

But evil and suffering are not ultimate. God is. Satan, the great

lover of evil and suffering, is not sovereign. God is.

He does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the

inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him,

“What have you done?” (Dan. 4:35)

[He declares] the end from the beginning and from ancient times things

not yet done, saying, “My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish

all my purpose.” (Isa. 46:10)

Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded

it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?

(Lam. 3:37-38; see Amos 3:6)

Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the

LORD that will stand. (Prov. 19:21; see 16:9)

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.

(Prov. 16:33)

Therefore, “If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . Who shall separate

us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution,

or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,

‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as

sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors

through him who loved us” (Rom. 8:31, 35-37).

God moves in a mysterious way

His wonders to perform;

He plants His footsteps in the sea

And rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs

And works His sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take;

The clouds ye so much dread

Are big with mercy and shall break

In blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,

But trust Him for His grace;

Behind a frowning providence

He hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast,

Unfolding every hour;

The bud may have a bitter taste,

But sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err

And scan His work in vain;

God is His own interpreter,

And He will make it plain.4

1 David Wells, Above All Earthly Pow’rs: Christ in a Postmodern World (Grand Rapids, Mich.:

Eerdmans, 2005), 4.

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