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87

CHAPTER VI.

GOD: A SACRAMENT.

Isaiah xl. 12-31.

Such are the Four Voices which herald the day of Israel's redemption. They are scarcely silent, before the Sun Himself uprises, and horizon after horizon of His empire is displayed to the eyes of His starved and waiting people. From the prologue of the prophecy, in ch. xl. 1-11, we advance to the presentation, in chs. xl. 12-xli., of its primary and governing truth—the sovereignty and omnipotence of God, the God of Israel.

We may well call this truth the sun of the new day which Israel is about to enter. For as it is the sun which makes the day, and not the day which reveals the sun; so it is God, supreme and almighty, who interprets, predicts and controls His people's history, and not their history, which, in its gradual evolution, is to make God's sovereignty and omnipotence manifest to their experience. Let us clearly understand this. The prophecy, which we are about to follow, is an argument not so much from history to God as from God to history. Israel already have their God; and it is because He is what He is, and what they ought to know Him to be,4242   See xl. 21, Have ye not known? that they are bidden believe that88 their future shall take a certain course. The prophet begins with God, and everything follows from God. All that in these chapters lends light or force, all that interprets the history of to-day and fills to-morrow with hope, fact and promise alike, the captivity of Israel, the appearance of Cyrus, the fall of Babylon, Israel's redemption, the extension of their mission to the ends of the earth, the conversion of the Gentiles, the equipment, discipline and triumph of the Servant Himself,—we may even say the expanded geography of our prophet, the countries which for the first time emerge from the distant west within the vision of a Hebrew seer,—all are due to that primary truth about God with which we are now presented. It is God's sovereignty which brings such far-off things into the interest of Israel; it is God's omnipotence which renders such impossible things practical. And as with the subjects, so with the style of the following chapters. The prophet's style is throughout the effect of his perfect and brilliant monotheism. It is the thought of God which everywhere kindles his imagination. His most splendid passages are those, in which he soars to some lofty vision of the Divine glory in creation or history; while his frequent sarcasm and ridicule owe their effectiveness to the sudden scorn, with which, from such a view, scattering epigrams the while, he sweeps down upon the heathen's poor images, or Israel's grudging thoughts of his God. The breadth and the force of his imagination, the sweep of his rhetoric, the intensity of his scorn, may all be traced to his sense of God's sovereignty, and are the signs to us of how absolutely he was possessed by this as his main and governing truth.

This, then, being the sun of Israel's coming day, we89 may call what we find in ch. xl. 11-xli. the sunrise—the full revelation and uprising on our sight of this original gospel of the prophet. It is addressed to two classes of men; in ch. xl. 12-31 to Israel, but in ch. xli. (for the greater part, at least) to the Gentiles. In dealing with these two classes the prophet makes a great difference. To Israel he presents their God, as it were, in sacrament; but to the Gentiles he urges God's claims in challenge and argument. It is to the past that he summons Israel, and to what they ought to know already about their God; it is to the future, to history yet unmade, that he proposes to the Gentiles they should together appeal, in order to see whether his God or their gods are the true Deity. In this chapter we shall deal with the first of these—God in sacrament.


The fact is familiar to all, that the Old Testament nowhere feels the necessity of proving the existence of God. That would have been a proof unintelligible to those to whom its prophets addressed themselves. In the time when the Old Testament came to him, man as little doubted the existence of God as he doubted his own life. But as life sometimes burned low, needing replenishment, so faith would grow despondent and morbid, needing to be led away from objects which only starved it, or produced, as idolatry did, the veriest delirium of a religion. A man had to get his faith lifted from the thoughts of his own mind and the works of his own hand, to be borne upon and nourished by the works of God,—to kindle with the sunrise, to broaden out by the sight of the firmament, to deepen as he faced the spaces of night,—and win calmness and strength to think life into order as he looked forth90 upon the marshalled hosts of heaven, having all the time no doubt that the God who created and guided these was his God. Therefore, when psalmist or prophet calls Israel to lift their eyes to the hills, or to behold how the heavens declare the glory of God, or to listen to that unbroken tradition, which day passes to day and night to night, of the knowledge of the Creator, it is not proofs to doubting minds which he offers: it is spiritual nourishment to hungry souls. These are not arguments—they are sacraments. When we Christians go to the Lord's Supper, we go not to have the Lord proved to us, but to feed upon a life and a love of whose existence we are past all doubt. Our sacrament fills all the mouths by which needy faith is fed—such as outward sight, and imagination, and memory, and wonder, and love. Now very much what the Lord's Supper is to us for fellowship with God and feeding upon Him, that were the glory of the heavens, and the everlasting hills, and the depth of the sea, and the vision of the stars to the Hebrews. They were the sacraments of God. By them faith was fed, and the spirit of man entered into the enjoyment of God, whose existence indeed he had never doubted, but whom he had lost, forgotten, or misunderstood.

Now it is as such a minister of sacrament to God's starved and disheartened people that our prophet appears in ch. xl. 12-31.

There were three elements in Israel's starvation. Firstly, for nearly fifty years they had been deprived of the accustomed ordinances of religion. Temple and altar had perished; the common praise and the national religious fellowship were impossible; the traditional symbols of the faith lay far out of sight; there was at best only a precarious ministry of the Word. But, in91 the second place, this famine of the Word and of Sacraments was aggravated by the fact that history had gone against the people. To the baser minds among them, always ready to grant their allegiance to success, this could only mean that the gods of the heathen had triumphed over Jehovah. It is little wonder that such experience, assisted by the presentation, at every turn in their ways, of idols and a splendid idol-worship, the fashion and delight of the populations through whom they were mixed, should have tempted many Jews to feed their starved hearts at the shrines of their conquerors' gods. But the result could only be the further atrophy of their religious nature. It has been held as a reason for the worship of idols that they excite the affection and imagination of the worshipper. They do no such thing: they starve and they stunt these. The image reacts upon the imagination, infects it with its own narrowness and poverty, till man's noblest creative faculty becomes the slave of its own poor toy. But, thirdly, if the loftier spirits in Israel refused to believe that Jehovah, exalted in righteousness, could be less than the brutal deities whom Babylon vaunted over Him, they were flung back upon the sorrowful conviction that their God had cast them off; that He had retreated from the patronage of so unworthy a people into the veiled depths of His own nature. Then upon that heaven, from which no answer came to those who were once its favourites, they cast we can scarcely tell what reflection of their own weary and spiritless estate. As, standing over a city by night, you will see the majestic darkness above stained and distorted into shapes of pain or wrath by the upcast of the city's broken, murky lights, so many of the nobler exiles saw upon the blank, unanswering92 heaven a horrible mirage of their own trouble and fear. Their weariness said, He is weary; the ruin of their national life reflected itself as the frustration of His purposes; their accusing conscience saw the darkness of His counsel relieved only by streaks of wrath.

But none of these tendencies in Israel went so far as to deny that there was a God, or even to doubt His existence. This, as we have said, was nowhere yet the temptation of mankind. When the Jew lapsed from that true faith, which we have seen his nation carry into exile, he fell into one of the two tempers just described—devotion to false gods in the shape of idols, or despondency consequent upon false notions of the true God. It is against these tempers, one after another, that ch. xl. 12-31 is directed. And so we understand why, though the prophet is here declaring the basis and spring of all his subsequent prophecy, he does not adopt the method of abstract argument. He is not treating with men, who have had no true knowledge of God in the past, or whose intellect questions God's reality. He is treating with men, who have a national heritage of truth about God, but they have forgotten it; who have hearts full of religious affection, but it has been betrayed; who have a devout imagination, but it has been starved; who have hopes, but they are faint unto death. He will recall to them their heritage, rally their shrinking convictions by the courage of his own faith, feed their hunger after righteousness4343   That is in the sense, in which our prophet uses the word, of salvation. See Ch. XIV. of this volume. by a new hope set to noble music, and display to the imagination that has been stunted by so93 long looking upon the face of idols the wide horizons of Divine glory in earth and heaven.

His style corresponds to his purpose. He does not syllogize; he exhorts, recalls and convicts by assertion. The passage is a series of questions, rallies and promises. Have ye not known? have ye not heard? is his chief note. Instead of arranging facts in history or nature as in themselves a proof for God, he mentions them only by way of provoking inward recollections. His sharp questions are as hooks to draw from his hearers' hearts their timid and starved convictions, that he may nourish these upon the sacramental glories of nature and of history.

Such a purpose and style trust little to method, and it would be useless to search for any strict division of strophes in the passage.4444   Some intention of division undoubtedly appears. Notice the double refrain, To whom will ye liken, etc., of vv. 18 and 25; and then at equal distance from either occurrence of this challenge the appeal, Dost thou not know, etc., vv. 21 and 28. But though these signs of a strict division appear, the rest is submerged by the strong flood of feeling which rushes too deep and rapid for any hard-and-fast embankments. The following, however, is a manifest division of subject, according to the two tempers to which the prophet had to appeal. Verses 12 to 25, and perhaps 26, are addressed to the idolatrous Jews. But in 26 there is a transition to the despair of the nobler hearts in Israel, who, though they continued to believe in the One True God, imagined that He had abandoned them; and to such vv. 27 to 31 are undoubtedly addressed. The different treatment accorded to the two classes is striking. The former of these the prophet does not call by any title of the people of God; with the latter he pleads by a dear double name that he94 may win them through every recollection of their gracious past, Jacob and Israel (ver. 27). Challenge and sarcasm are his style with the idolaters, his language clashing out in bursts too loud and rapid sometimes for the grammar, as in ver. 24; but with the despondent his way is gentle persuasiveness, with music that swells and brightens steadily, passing without a break from the minor key of pleading to the major of glorious promise.

1. Against the Idolaters. A couple of sarcastic sentences upon idols and their manufacture (vv. 19, 20) stand between two majestic declarations of God's glory in nature and in history (vv. 12-17 and 21-24). It is an appeal from the worshippers' images to their imagination. Who hath measured in his hollow hand the waters, and heaven ruled off with a span? Or caught in a tierce the dust of the earth, and weighed in scales mountains, and hills in a balance? Who hath directed the spirit of Jehovah, and as man of His counsel hath helped Him to know? With whom took He counsel, that such an one informed Him and taught Him in the orthodox path, and taught Him knowledge and helped Him to know the way of intelligence? The term translated orthodox path is literally path of ordinance or judgement, the regular path, and is doubtless to be taken along with its parallel, way of intelligence, as a conventional phrase of education, which the prophet employed to make his sarcasm the stronger. Lo nations! as a drop from a bucket, and like dust in a balance, are they reckoned. Lo the Isles!4545   See p. 109. as a trifle He lifteth. And Lebanon is by no means enough for burning, nor its brute-life enough for an offering. All the nations are as95 nothing before Him, as spent and as waste are they reckoned for Him.

When he has thus soared enough, as on an archangel's wings, he swoops with one rapid question down from the height of his imagination upon the images.

To whom then will ye liken God, and what likeness will ye range by Him?

The image! A smith cast it, and a smelter plates it with gold, and smelts silver chains. He that is straitened for an offering—he chooseth a tree that does not rot, seeks to him a cunning carver to set up an image that will not totter.4646   If an idol leant over or fell that was the very worst of omens; cf. the case of Dagon.

The image shrivels up in face of that imagination; the idol is abolished by laughter. There is here, and for almost the first time in history, the same intellectual intolerance of images, the same burning sense of the unreasonableness of their worship, which has marked all monotheists, and turned even the meekest of their kind into fierce scorners and satirists—Elijah, Mohammed, Luther, and Knox.4747   When John Knox was a prisoner in France, "the officers brought to him a painted board, which they called Our Lady, and commanded him to kiss it. They violently thrust it into his face, and put it betwixt his hands, who, seeing the extremity, took the idol, and advisedly looking about, he cast it into the river, and said, 'Let Our Lady now save herself; she is light enough; let her learn to swim!' After that was no Scotsman urged with that idolatry."—Knox, History of the Reformation. We hear this laughter from them all. Sometimes it may sound truculent or even brutal, but let us remember what is behind it. When we hear it condemned—as, in the interests of art and imagination, its puritan outbursts have often been condemned—as a barbarian incapacity to sympathise96 with the æsthetic instincts of man, or to appreciate the influence of a beautiful and elevating cult, we can reply that it was the imagination itself which often inspired both the laughter at, and the breaking of, images, and that, because the iconoclast had a loftier vision of God than the image-maker, he has, on the whole, more really furthered the progress of art than the artist whose works he has destroyed. It is certain, for instance, that no one would exchange the beauties of the prophecy now before us, with its sublime imaginations of God, for all the beauty of all the idols of Babylonia which it consigned to destruction. And we dare to say the same of two other epochs, when the uncompromising zeal of monotheists crushed to the dust the fruits of centuries of Christian art. The Koran is not often appealed to as a model of poetry, but it contains passages whose imagination of God, broad as the horizon of the desert of its birth, and swift and clear as the desert dawn, may be regarded as infinitely more than compensation—from a purely artistic point of view—for the countless works of Christian ritual and imagery which it inspired the rude cavalry of the desert to trample beneath the hoofs of their horses. And again, if we are to blame the Reformers of Western Christendom for the cruelty with which they lifted their hammers against the carved work of the sanctuary, do not let us forget how much of the spirit of the best modern art is to be traced to their more spiritual and lofty conceptions of God. No one will question how much Milton's imagination owed to his Protestantism, or how much Carlyle's dramatic genius was the result of his Puritan faith. But it is to the spirit of the Reformation, as it liberated the worshipper's soul from bondage to artificial and ecclesiastical symbols of the97 Deity, that we may also ascribe a large part of the force of that movement towards Nature and the imagination of God in His creation which inspired, for example, Wordsworth's poetry, and those visual sacraments of rainbow, storm, and dawn to which Browning so often lifts our souls from their dissatisfaction with ritual or with argument.

From his sarcasm on the idols our prophet returns to his task of drawing forth Israel's memory and imagination. Have ye not known? Have ye not heard? Hath it not been told you from the beginning? Have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth? He that is enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its dwellers are before Him as grasshoppers; who stretcheth as a fine veil the heavens, and spreadeth them like a dwelling tent—that is, as easily as if they were not even a pavilion or marquee, but only a humble dwelling tent. He who bringeth great men to nothing, the judges of the earth He maketh as waste. Yea, they were not planted; yea, they were not sown; yea, their root had not struck in the earth, but immediately He blew upon them and they withered, and a whirlwind like stubble carried them away. To whom, then, will ye liken Me, that I may match with him? saith the Holy One. But this time it is not necessary to suggest the idols; they were dissolved by that previous burst of laughter. Therefore, the prophet turns to the other class in Israel with whom he has to deal.

2. To the Despairers of the Lord. From history we pass back to nature in ver. 26, which forms a transition, the language growing steadier from the impetuosity of the address to the idolaters to the serene music of the second part. Enough rebuke has the prophet made. As he now lifts his people's vision98 to the stars, it is not to shame their idols, but to feed their hearts. Lift up on high your eyes and see! Who hath created these? Who leads forth by number their host, and all of them calleth by name, by abundance of might, for He is powerful in strength, not one is amissing. Under such a night, that veils the confusion of earth only to bring forth all the majesty and order of heaven, we feel a moment's pause. Then as the expanding eyes of the exiles gaze upon the infinite power above, the prophet goes on. Why then sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel? Hidden is my way from Jehovah, and from my God my right hath passed.

Why does the prophet point his people to the stars? Because he is among Israel on that vast Babylonian plain, from whose crowded and confused populations, struggling upon one monotonous level, there is no escape for the heart but to the stars. Think of that plain when Nebuchadrezzar was its tyrant; of the countless families of men torn from their far homes and crushed through one another upon its surface; of the ancient liberties that were trampled in that servitude, of the languages that were stifled in that Babel, of the many patriotisms set to sigh themselves out into the tyrant's mud and mortar. Ah heaven! was there a God in thee, that one man could thus crush nations in his vat, as men crushed shell-fish in those days, to dye his imperial purple? Was there any Providence above, that he could tear peoples from the lands and seas, where their various gifts and offices for humanity had been developed, and press them to his selfish and monotonous servitude? In that medley of nations, all upon one level of captivity, Israel was just as lost as the most insignificant tribe; her history severed, her worship impossible, her very language99 threatened with decay. No wonder, that from the stifling crowd and desperate flatness of it all she cried, Hidden is my way from Jehovah, and from my God my right hath passed.

But from the flatness and the crowd the stars are visible; and it was upon the stars that the prophet bade his people feed their hearts. There were order and unfailing guidance; for the greatness of His might not one is missing. And He is your God. Just as visible as those countless stars are, one by one, in the dark heavens, to your eyes looking up, so your lives and fortunes are to His eyes looking down on this Babel of peoples. He gathereth the outcasts of Israel.... He telleth the number of the stars.4848   Psalm cxlvii. And so the prophet goes on earnestly to plead: Hast thou not known? Hast thou not heard? that an everlasting God is Jehovah, Creator of the ends of the earth. He fainteth not, neither is weary. There is no searching of His understanding. Giver to the weary of strength! And upon him that is of no might, He lavisheth power. Even youths may faint and be weary, and young men utterly fall; but they who hope in Jehovah shall renew strength, put forth pinions like eagles, run and not weary, walk and not faint. Listen, ears, not for the sake of yourselves only, though the music is incomparably sweet! Listen for the sake of the starved hearts below, to whom you carry the sacraments of hope, whom you lift to feed upon the clear symbols of God's omnipotence and unfailing grace.

This chapter began with the assurance to the heart of Israel of their God's will to redeem and restore them. It closes with bidding the people take hope in God. Let us again emphasize—for we cannot do so too often,100 if we are to keep ourselves from certain errors of to-day on the subject of Revelation—the nature of this prophecy. It is not a reading-off of history; it is a call from God. No deed has yet been done pointing towards the certainty of Israel's redemption; it is not from facts writ large on the life of their day, that the prophet bids the captives read their Divine discharge. That discharge he brings from God; he bids them find the promise and the warrant of it in their God's character, in their own convictions of what that character is. In order to revive those convictions, he does, it is true, appeal to certain facts, but these facts are not the facts of contemporary history which might reveal to any clear eye, that the current and the drift of politics was setting towards the redemption of Israel. They are facts of nature and facts of general providence, which, as we have said, like sacraments evidence God's power to the pious heart, feed it with the assurance of His grace, and bid it hope in His word, though history should seem to be working quite the other way.

This instance of the method of revelation does not justify two opinions, which prevail at the present day regarding prophecy. In the first place, it proves to us, that those are wrong who, too much infected by the modern temper to judge accurately writers so unsophisticated, describe prophecy as if it were merely a philosophy of history, by which the prophets deduced from their observation of the course of events their idea of God and their forecast of His purposes. The prophets had indeed to do with history; they argued from it, and they appealed to it. The history that was past was full of God's condescension to men, and shone like Nature's self with sacramental signs of His power and will: the history that was future was to be101 His supreme tribunal, and to afford the vindication of the word they claimed to have brought from Him. But still all this—their trust in history and their use of it—was something secondary in the prophetic method. With them God Himself was first; they came forth from His presence, as they describe it, with the knowledge of His will gained through the communion of their spirits with His Spirit. If they then appealed to past history, it was to illustrate their message; or to future, it was for vindication of this. But God Himself was the Source and Author of it; and therefore, before they had facts beneath their eyes to corroborate their promises, they appealed to the people, like our prophet in ch. xl., to wait on Jehovah. The day might not yet have dawned so as to let them read the signs of the times. But in the darkness they hoped in Jehovah, and borrowed for their starved hearts from the stars above, or other sacrament, some assurance of His unfailing power.

Jehovah, then, was the source of the prophets' word: His character was its pledge. The prophets were not mere readers from history, but speakers from God.

But the testimony of our chapter to all this enables us also to arrest an opinion about Revelation, which has too hurriedly run off with some Christians, and to qualify it. In the inevitable recoil from the scholastic view of revelation as wholly a series of laws and dogmas and predictions, a number of writers on the subject have of late defined Revelation as a chain of historical acts, through which God uttered His character and will to men. According to this view, Revelation is God manifesting Himself in history, and the Bible is the record of this historical process. Now, while it is true that the Bible is, to a large extent, the annals and interpretation of the great and small events of a102 nation's history—of its separation from the rest of mankind, its miraculous deliverances, its growth, its defeats and humiliations, its reforms and its institutions; in all of which God manifested His character and will—yet the Bible also records a revelation, which preceded these historical deeds; a revelation the theatre of which was not the national experience, but the consciousness of the individual; which was recognised and welcomed by choice souls in the secret of their own spiritual life, before it was realised and observed in outward fact; which was uttered by the prophet's voice and accepted by the people's trust in the dark and the stillness, before the day of the Lord had dawned or there was light to see His purposes at work. In a word, God's revelation to men was very often made clear in their subjective consciousness, before it became manifest in the history about them.

And, for ourselves, let us remember that to this day true religion is as independent of facts as it was with the prophet. True religion is a conviction of the character of God, and a resting upon that alone for salvation. We need nothing more to begin with; and everything else, in our experience and fortune, helps us only in so far as it makes that primary conviction more clear and certain. Darkness may be over us, and we lonely and starved beneath it. We may be destitute of experience to support our faith; we may be able to discover nothing in life about us making in the direction of our hopes. Still, let us wait on the Lord. It is by bare trust in Him, that we renew our strength, put forth wings like eagles, run and not weary, walk and not faint.

Put forth wings—run—walk! Is the order correct? Hope swerves from the edge of so descending a promise,103 which seems only to repeat the falling course of nature—that droop, we all know, from short ambitions, through temporary impulsiveness, to the old commonplace and routine. Soaring, running, walking—and is not the next stage, a cynic might ask, standing still?

On the contrary, it is a natural and a true climax, rising from the easier to the more difficult, from the ideal to the real, from dream to duty, from what can only be the rare occasions of life to what must be life's usual and abiding experience. History followed this course. Did the prophet, as he promised, think of what should really prove to be the fortune of his people during the next few years?—the great flight of hope, on which we see them rising in their psalms of redemption as on the wings of an eagle; the zeal and liberality of preparation for departure from Babylon; the first rush at the Return; and then the long tramp, day after day, with the slow caravan, at the pace of its most heavily-laden beasts of burden, when they shall walk and not faint should indeed seem to them the sweetest part of their God's promise.

Or was it the far longer perspective of Israel's history that bade the prophet follow this descending scale? The spirit of prophecy was with himself to soar higher than ever before, reaching by truly eagle-flight to a vision of the immediate consummation of Israel's glory: the Isles waiting for Jehovah, the Holy City radiant in His rising, and open with all her gates to the thronging nations; the true religion flashing from Zion across the world, and the wealth of the world pouring back upon Zion. And some have wondered, and some scoff, that after this vision there should follow centuries of imperceptible progress—five-and-a-half centuries of preparation for the coming of104 the Promised Servant; and then—Israel, indeed gone forth over the world, but only in small groups, living upon the grudged and fitful tolerance of the great centres of Gentile civilisation. The prophet surely anticipates all this, when he places the walking after the soaring and the running. When he says last, and most impressively, of his people's fortunes, that they shall walk and not faint, he has perhaps just those long centuries in view, when, instead of a nation of enthusiasts taking humanity by storm, we see small bands of pioneers pushing their way from city to city by the slow methods of ancient travel,—Damascus, Antioch, Tarsus, Iconium, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth and Rome,—everywhere that Paul and the missionaries of the Cross found a pulpit and a congregation ready for the Gospel; toiling from day to day at their own trades, serving the alien for wages, here and there founding a synagogue, now and then completing a version of their Scriptures, oftentimes achieving martyrdom, but ever living a pure and a testifying life in face of the heathen, with the passion of these prophecies at their hearts. It was certainly for such centuries and such men that the word was written, they shall walk and not faint. This persistence under persecution, this monotonous drilling of themselves in school and synagogue, this slow progress without prize or praise along the common highways of the world and by the world's ordinary means of livelihood, was a greater proof of indomitableness than even the rapture which filled their hearts on the golden eve of the Return, under the full diapason of prophecy.

And so must it ever be. First the ideal, and then the rush at it with passionate eyes, and then the daily trudge onward, when its splendour has faded from the105 view, but is all the more closely wrapped round the heart. For glorious as it is to rise to some great consummation on wings of dream and song, glorious as it is, also, to bend that impetus a little lower and take some practical crisis of life by storm, an even greater proof of our religion and of the help our God can give us is the lifelong tramp of earth's common surface, without fresh wings of dream, or the excitement of rivalry, or the attraction of reward, but with the head cool, and the face forward, and every footfall upon firm ground. Let hope rejoice in a promise, which does not go off into the air, but leaves us upon solid earth; and let us hold to a religion, which, while it exults in being the secret of enthusiasm and the inspiration of heroism, is daring and Divine enough to find its climax in the commonplace.


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