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Lectures on the Acts of the Apostles.
« Prev Lecture V. Peter and John Examined by the Council. Next »

LECTURE V.

PETER AND JOHN EXAMINED BY THE COUNCIL.

Chap. iv. 1-22.

IN the last Lecture, I considered the miracle performed by the Apostles upon a lame man, who lay at the gate of the temple called Beautiful, and illustrated part of the discourse which they delivered, on that occasion, to the people. Although the opportunity was tempting to vanity, as it would have been easy to pass themselves for extraordinary persons upon the wondering multitude; yet these honest and humble disciples of Jesus disclaimed the honour of the cure, and transferred all the glory of it to their Master. Their minds were too strongly convinced of his excellence and dignity, and their hearts were too sensible of his love, to permit them to harbour any purpose but that of exalting him in the eyes of their countrymen, and gaining them over to his. religion. With this view, they boldly affirmed, in the presence of his murderers, that he was the Holy One and the Just; and called upon them to acknowledge him as the great Prophet, whom the Church was bound implicitly to obey.

In the mean time, intelligence of these proceedings was conveyed to the men in power, by some of their zealous partisans, who had mingled with the crowd, and in whom the miracle and doctrine of the Apostles had awakened no sentiments but those of hostility. Alarmed at the information, the priests, the captain of the temple, and the Sadducees came in haste, and laid violent hands upon Peter and John, and committed them to prison. The situation of affairs was so serious as to call for some prompt and decisive measure. We are told, that “they were grieved, because the Apostles taught the people, and preached through Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” On looking back to their discourse, we do not observe this doctrine mentioned; but the resurrection of Jesus himself is expressly affirmed, and that of his followers is an obvious and necessary inference from it. Both were alike offensive to the rulers of the Jews; the one, because it disclosed a secret which they had taken great pains to conceal, and defeated their design in putting our Saviour to death; the other, because it was opposed to the doctrine of the Sadducees, who maintained, that death terminates the existence of man, and, consequently, that his body is consigned to the grave, under a sentence of eternal imprisonment. It is not improbable that Peter and John had introduced the latter subject in their address to the people; for their discourses are not always given at full length, but, in some cases at least, we have only the principal topics, or an abridgment of what they delivered.

But the priests and Sadducees, although they hastened to the place with all the speed of affronted pride, and irritated zeal, came too late to prevent the effect which they dreaded. The seeds of heresy, as these churchmen would have said, were already sown, and had taken deep root in the hearts of many of the Jews. The Apostles had infused their own sentiments into the breasts of their hearers. The word of God, delivered by these Galilean fishermen with much simplicity, but with the earnestness of conviction, and in the demonstration of the Spirit, had made an impression, which not all the arts of sophistry, nor all the terrors of persecution, could afterwards erase. “Howbeit, many of them which heard the word believed; and the number of the men was about five thousand.” This number is quite distinct from the three thousand converted on the day of Pentecost; and it would be idle to spend time in proving what is plain to every reader. These are all the remarks which I think it necessary to make upon the four introductory verses. Let us proceed to the account of the appearance of Peter and John before the council.

“And it came to pass on the morrow, that their rulers, and elders, and scribes, and Annas the high-priest, and Caiaphas, and John, and Alexander, and as many as were of the kindred of the high-priest, were gathered together at Jerusalem.” This seems to be a description of the Sanhedrim, or the supreme council of the Jewish nation, which was composed of the High-Priest, as president, the Elders of the people, and the Scribes who were learned in the law. As its jurisdiction extended to all causes relating to religion, we perceive for what reason it was assembled on this occasion. A new sect had appeared, which threatened to overthrow the established faith, and purposed to erect upon its ruins the doctrines and institutions of Jesus of Nazareth. When the members of this council condemned him to be crucified, they flattered themselves that his cause would be buried in the same grave with himself. But three full days had not elapsed, when the report of his resurrection, brought by the very men whom they had stationed to watch his sepulchre, filled them with perplexity and terror. Yet, instead of yielding to the evidence, of which it was impossible to entertain any suspicion, these obstinate sinners, resolved, it should seem, to brave heaven itself, contrived a story, which, they hoped, would retain the people in their error. “Say ye, His disciples came by night, and stole him away while we slept.” Thus their minds were again at rest. At rest, did I say? No; they might force their countenances to be cheerful, and repeat, with an air of confidence, the charge of imposture against Christ; but their hearts misgave them, and they secretly trembled at the name which they publicly blasphemed.

The time passed on, and for several weeks nothing more was heard about him, or his disciples, till suddenly it was rumoured abroad, that they had appeared in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, and were addressing, in their respective languages, strangers from every country under heaven. This surprising information must have stirred up afresh all the fears of the Sanhedrim, whose minds were ill at ease; but as we hear of no measure adopted by them on the occasion, they perhaps persuaded themselves, that it was only a sudden burst of zeal on the part of the followers of Jesus, which had been magnified into a miracle by the credulity of the populace. But now, finding that the Apostles persisted in maintaining the resurrection of their Master, that they were attracting the attention of the public, that they were becoming popular, that converts to their cause were fast multiplying, and that they were actually performing miracles in confirmation of their doctrine, they judged it high time to bestir themselves, and to make some great effort to save their honour and interests, which were in imminent danger.

The council was assembled; and Peter and John having been brought out of prison, and placed at the bar, the president demanded, with a stern countenance, we may presume, and in an authoritative tone, “By what power, or by what name, have ye done this?” The question was not necessary for the information of the judges, who knew well that they were disciples of Jesus; but they wished to draw from their own lips a confession, upon which they could found their proceedings; or they hoped, that overawed by the presence of so high and venerable an assembly, they would make a retractation. And had fear induced the Apostles to dissemble, and to attribute the miracle, not to Jesus of Nazareth, but to the God of Israel, their declaration would have been triumphantly published, as an everlasting check to the progress of Christianity. But Peter and John were not to be intimidated, They knew that they had truth on their side; and, according to the promise of their Saviour, they received, on this trying occasion, extraordinary assistance. “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Ghost, said unto them, Ye rulers of the people, and elders of Israel, if we this day be examined of the good deed done to the impotent man, by what means he is made whole; be it known unto you, and to all the people of Israel, that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom ye crucified, whom God raised from the dead, even by him doth this man stand here before you whole.” “The question relates to the cure of the lame man; and you inquire by what means it has been effected. Know, then, that we have performed it by no power or holiness of our own, by no demoniacal or magical influence, nor simply, like the Prophets, in the name of Jehovah, the God of our fathers; but in the name, and by the authority, of Jesus our Master, with a design to prove that he is the Son of God, and the Messiah.” You observe no evasion in this answer, no reluctance to bring out the truth, no attempt to palliate it, although Peter knew that it was in the highest degree offensive to his audience. There is a studied plainness and explicitness in his words, manifestly indicating a mind, which, instead of being ashamed, gloried in the truth, and was careless of the personal consequences which might flow from the publication of it. Not content with simply avowing it, he ventures upon a direct accusation of his judges. It was not a time to flatter: the glory of his Master, the dignity of the Apostolical office, and the real interest of those whom he addressed, forbade such complaisance. “Whom ye crucified.” “By that same man, with whose innocent blood your hands are yet stained, has this incontrovertible miracle been performed. We are only his ministers. In vain did you combine against him. In vain, while Providence permitted you to carry your malice so far, did you nail him to the cross. You could not defeat the purposes of heaven, and prevent his entrance into his glory and his kingdom, The right hand of his Father restored the life which you wickedly took away, and has invested the insulted and rejected Saviour with all power in heaven and earth,” Every word was a sharp arrow, piercing the hearts of those enemies of the King. Oh! the torture which they must have felt, while those contemptible men braved them to the face, and compelled them to hear their own shame and condemnation. The order of things is reversed, The prisoners at the bar are the accusers; and the judges on the bench are the self-convicted criminals.

“This is the stone, which was set at nought of you builders, which is become the head of the corner.” The priests and rulers had often sung these words of the Psalmist, and felt, or thought that they felt, holy indignation against the froward and impious men, whose conduct they describe. They never suspected, that the portrait, which they surveyed with so much detestation, was drawn for themselves. “But you,” said the Apostle, “are the builders, who have refused to admit that stone which is now the head of the corner.” It was incumbent upon them, as ministers of God, and workers together with him, to contribute their endeavours to carry on that structure, which he purposed to erect for the glory of his mercy and wisdom. In prosecution of this design, they were required, when Jesus Christ, who was described in prophecy as “the stone which God should lay in Zion,” came into the world, to assign to him his proper place in the building, by acknowledging him to be the Messiah, and calling upon the people to believe in him, and to submit to his authority. But, without regarding the evidence of his divine mission, and inquiring into his qualifications for saving them from sin and death, they opposed his pretensions, because he wanted external splendour, because he promised neither wealth nor worldly honours to his followers, because he did not offer to deliver the nation from the Roman yoke, and to give them the empire of the world. For these reasons the builders threw this stone aside as useless. “But God’s thoughts were not as their thoughts; neither were his ways as their ways.” The despised and neglected stone he raised to the most elevated and important place in the building, Upon the crucified Saviour he conferred glory and authority, constituting him the head of the Church, the centre of union to his people, the bond which connects Jews and Gentiles, and composes of both one holy temple in the Lord. “The man,” said the Apostle, “whom you treated with contempt, and put to death in an ignominious manner, is seated at the right hand of the Father, anti is entitled to the homage and obedience of angels and men.”

It was manifest, then, that Jesus was the only Saviour; and, consequently, that no person could reject him but at his peril. “Neither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved,” Some suppose the meaning of these words to be, that the name of Jesus was the only name which had virtue, when pronounced, to effect miraculous cures; and that there is a literal reference to the question of the Sanhedrim, “By what name have ye done this?” They think that the council in their question, and Peter in his answer, had respect to a notion Which prevailed among the Jews, and other nations that there was a power in certain names, to cure diseases. This foolish opinion was adopted by some of the more superstitious Fathers of the Church.55Origen. contra Celsum, lib. i. 18-20. iv. 183, 184. v. 261, 262. Although, however, it be true, that the use of any other name than that of Jesus would have proved inefficient in an attempt to work a miracle; yet I apprehend, that the words before us contain a higher and more important sense. Salvation signifies something greater than deliverance from bodily affliction, namely, the redemption of the whole man from sin and death; and Peter declares that it is only through faith in Christ that this salvation can be enjoyed. This is a truth, which, although opposed with virulence by the Jews, is believed by Christians upon satisfactory evidence. Disputes have arisen among us with respect to the extent of redemption, that is, with respect to the situation and character of the persons to whom its benefits are applied; but no doubt remains with those, who, in forming their opinions, are determined by the express authority of Scripture, that the future happiness of men must, in one way or other, be attributed to his mediation. His name gives hope and joy to the guilty. It is in his blood that we see the price of our pardon; in his grace, the means of our restoration to the divine image; in his promises, the sure ground on which we expect immortality. The gospel exhibits him alone as the object of our faith; and no other was pointed out by the Prophets.

Let us consider the effect of Peters’s speech upon the council. The most furious passions, we may well believe, boiled in their breasts; but such was the force of truth, that they were confounded and silenced. “Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were unlearned and ignorant men, they marvelled, and they took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus. And beholding the man which was healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it.” The men, whom our Saviour chose to be the preachers of his religion, and the advocates of his cause, seemed, from their want of natural and acquired qualifications, to be altogether unfit for so important an office. They were acquainted with the subtilties of logic, and the arts of eloquence. They could not compose discourses, in which the artful disposition of the arguments, the plausible representation of facts, and the beauties of style, should steal upon the hearers, and, ere they were aware, disarm their resentment, and conciliate their good wills The utmost of which publicans and fishermen were capable, was to speak a few sentences, probably not well connected, and expressed in homely and inaccurate language, They had never addressed magistrates and priests; they had conversed only with their equals; and in the presence of persons celebrated for their sanctity and learning, it should not have surprised us, if they had been abashed and embarrassed, and had experienced a total suspension of their powers. But our Lord promised “to give them a mouth and wisdom, which all their adversaries should not be able to gainsay nor resist.” He would supply, by the gifts of the Spirit, their want of talents and education; he would inspire the ignorant with knowledge, and enable “the tongue of the stammerer to speak plainly.” In the present case, we see this promise performed. Peter and John now stood before the supreme council of the nation, in which were present the high-priest with his attendants, the principal persons in authority, and the scribes, well versed in the law, and practised in the arts of perplexing an antagonist. Yet they retained perfect composure of mind, and pleaded the cause of their master with such precision, and energy, and boldness, that their judges were astonished.

It was evident that the Apostles were “unlearned and ignorant men,” not only from their appearance, which discovered the meanness of their condition, but likewise from their speech; for although our Lord promised to enable his disciples to plead his cause with irresistible efficacy, yet he did not promise to qualify them to speak their native language, or that of any foreign country, with propriety and elegance. Accordingly, their writings are not models of purity of style, and, in not a few instances, must have offended the fastidious ears of a Greek. It was not by the wisdom of words that the gospel was to be propagated. Their eloquence was the eloquence of truth, delivered with authority and earnestness, but without the decorations of art.

We are told, that “they took knowledge of them that they had been with Jesus.” This remark has been understood to mean, that the rulers of the Jews recognized them to be his disciples, or remembered to have seen them in company with him; for some of the priests and great men occasionally attended our Saviour as spies upon his conduct, and with a design to perplex and ensnare him. I apprehend that something different is intended, namely, that they perceived a resemblance between their manner and that of their Master; the same intrepidity of spirit, the same dignity and energy of address. And when they saw, at the same time, the lame man standing before them, they were confounded. Not one in all the assembly could find any thing to reply. A sullen silence reigned throughout the court; and the proud doctors of Jerusalem felt their inferiority in the presence of two fishermen of Galilee.

What was to be done in these humiliating circumstances? To confess before the Apostles that they were vanquished, would have been mortifying in the extreme; and to sit and say nothing, would have subjected them to contempt and derision. They commanded the prisoners, therefore, to retire, that without restraint they might consult together about some expedient for extricating themselves from their present embarrassment. “But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, saying, What shall we do to these men? for that a notable miracle hath been done by them, is manifest to all them that dwell at Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. But, that it spread no further among the people, let us straitly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name.” Here, my brethren, a very extraordinary scene is presented to our view. We see an assembly of men, professors of the true religion, high in office in the Church, and pretending to be animated with fervent zeal for the glory of God, deliberating not how they shall prevail upon their countrymen to embrace Christianity, of the divine origin of which they had before them undeniable evidence, but what would be the most effectual measure to hinder its reception. They do not startle at their own impiety; they do not blush to reveal to one another their atrocious purpose. Not a single voice is raised in behalf of the truth; there is not a Nicodemus to speak a word, or even to suggest a doubt, in favour of the Messiah. Where was conscience during this consultation? Was it silenced by the clamours of passion? It was impossible that they should not have been conscious of the wickedness of their design, and have experienced uneasiness from the remonstrances of the inward monitor; but their example shows us the unhappy and dangerous situation of men, who have openly and decidedly embarked in a bad cause. Their passions are all interested in its success. Their pride is engaged to go on; and they cannot recede without incurring the reproach of inconsistence, and exposing themselves to the scorn and persecution of the associates whom they have abandoned.

The resolution adopted by the council was to charge the Apostles, with threatenings, “to speak henceforth no more to any man in this name.” And they called them, and commanded them not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus.” Foolish men! How could they persuade themselves, that they should be able to stop the progress of the new religion which was patronised by God himself? Could their devices baffle his wisdom? or their authority prevail against his power? Upon the supposition that Peter and John had been terrified into silence, was there no other disciple of a more undaunted spirit, who would raise his voice in behalf of his Master? Although these men had altogether held their peace, surely in such a cause “the very stones would have cried out.” But the specimen which the council had already seen of the character of the Apostles, afforded no reasonable hope that they would pay any regard to their menaces. When they first came into the presence of the Sanhedrim, they appeared to be superior to fear, and dared to publish the truth in a manner the most offensive. It was vain to expect that their courage would fail, after they had witnessed the confusion of their judges; and that they would be intimidated by a command, which could be considered in no other light, than as an ebullition of impotent rage, an expression of obstinate but dismayed hostility.

Accordingly, when they. were again brought into court, their behaviour was such as might have been looked for, in these circumstances, from men firm to their purpose. “But Peter and John answered, and said unto them, Whether it be right in the sight of God, to hearken unto you, more than unto God, judge ye. For we cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” This is an explicit declaration that they would not obey them; and in justification of this refusal, they appeal to their judges themselves. God is the supreme lawgiver, the King of kings, and the Lord of lords, by delegation from whom earthly rulers hold that authority which they lawfully exercise over their subjects. There can be no power, therefore, against the truth, but for the truth. In the empire of the universe, as in the kingdoms of men, a deputy has no right to repeal the laws of the sovereign, and to call upon the people to engage in acts of rebellion and treason. From that moment conscience ceases to recognise him as a representative of the monarch, and can regard him only as an usurper. We perceive, therefore, the limits of the obedience which we owe to our superiors in Church and State. In those cases which are agreeable to the laws of heaven, made known by the light of nature, and by revelation, or which, at least, are not inconsistent with those laws, we are bound; but in every other case we are free. God has a prior claim to our obedience, which no human interference, no relation which may be formed between us and others, no promise or contract can invalidate. Those, therefore, who refuse to comply with the unlawful orders of their superiors, are not disobedient subjects. In such cases they are not subject. Their refusal may indeed be stigmatized as criminal, and punished by tyrants and wicked rulers, who can brook no opposition to their imperious mandates; but God approves of it, and it will be applauded by good men as a noble stand for the rights of truth and conscience.

The principle which we are now considering is so obviously just, that we may submit to the most partial judges, whether it ought not to be steadily acted upon, on all occasions, in which the authority of God and that of man interfere. It is a principle, which the light of nature teaches; and we find Socrates declaring to his judges, that he would not, to save his life, desist from fulfilling the will of God, by teaching philosophy. “O Athenians, I will obey God rather than you.” 66Socrat. Apolog. xi. It may indeed be alleged in defence of the most irregular and unjustifiable actions. Enthusiasm may fancy, and hypocrisy may pretend, a divine commission for the wildest excesses. The clearest and most valuable principles are liable to be abused. But in the present case, the Jewish rulers themselves could not question the application of it. What had the Apostles done? They had not taught a set of notions calculated to excite tumult and insurrection among the people; nor promulgated a system of impious and extravagant doctrines, for which they could produce no satisfactory evidence, They had spoken “the things which they had seen and heard.” Fully assured of the truth of the religion which they preached, they could give indubitable proof of it, and had given such proof, by the miracle performed upon the impotent man. To be silent, therefore, would have been to offer violence to their convictions, to conceal from others what they were interested to know, and to betray the trust reposed in them, when they were appointed to the Apostolical office.

This bold answer, which must have been regarded by the council as an open contempt of their authority, was sufficient to have roused their anger to fury, and to have prompted them to adopt violent measures. For the present, however, they contented themselves with renewing their threatenings, not from real moderation, or an aversion to proceed to extremities, but because they were apprehensive, that a more severe exercise of their authority would be attended with danger. The truth of the miracle performed upon the lame man was manifest beyond contradiction. He had passed his fortieth year, when the disorder in his joints, although it could have been remedied at an earlier period, was become incurable by human means. The people glorified God, by acknowledging the cure to be an immediate effect of his power; and regarded with reverence and affection, the Apostles, as his favourites and ministers. At this crisis it would have been hazardous to punish them. The populace, capable of being easily inflamed, and hurried on to the most dreadful outrages, might have forgotten their usual respect for their rulers, and have sacrificed them in a paroxysm of rage. For this reason, the council dismissed Peter and John, although they knew that they would return to their former employment, and preach, through Jesus, the resurrection from the dead with redoubled zeal and courage. “So when they had further threatened them, they let them go, finding nothing how they might punish them, because of the people; for all men glorified God for that which was done. For the man was above forty years old, on whom this miracle of healing was showed.” Thus did our Saviour deliver his faithful servants out of the hands of their enemies; and preserve them for the important purposes which they had yet to fulfil.

To this illustration of the passage I shall subjoin the following observations.

First, When God is carrying on any design for the manifestation of his glory, great opposition will be made to it. Satan, his implacable adversary will not remain a quiet spectator; and the men, over whom his influence extends, will be stirred up to his assistance. In this combination, it should not surprise us, to find, not only persons of profane principles and wicked lives, but some, who, in consequence of their apparent attachment to religion, might have been expected to range themselves on the opposite side. When God was setting his Son upon his holy hill of Zion, not only did the “Heathen” rage, who were ignorant of prophecy, and had not seen the miracles of Jesus, but the “people” imagined a vain thing; the favoured people to whom the oracles of God were committed, and among whom the Messiah had appeared. Both said “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.”

In the second place, God may expose his people to much discouragement, when they are walking in his own way, and when the undertaking, in which they are engaged, is patronised by himself. The Apostles preached Christ in consequence of an express commission from heaven; and upon their success depended the accomplishment of the divine purposes relative to the establishment of the Church, and the conversion of the world. Yet in the outset they were opposed by the supreme authority in the nation. In the course of their ministry, they were subjected to many dangers and grievous sufferings; and most of them lost their lives in the cause. Superficial reasoners may conclude, that God is at variance with himself, embarrassing and retarding the execution of his own plans; and may complain, that, instead of rewarding, he punishes men for their zeal and fidelity. “But the foolishness of God is wiser than men.” By such dispensations, he exercises the faith of his servants, and makes known the power of his arm, in carrying on his designs in spite of the utmost efforts of his adversaries; while, in the conduct of his people, such examples of courage, patience, and disinterested love are exhibited, as afford no slight testimony to the truth of religion. Thus he makes “the wrath of man praise him; and the remainder of it he restrains.” Converts are made by the sufferings of the saints as well as by their doctrine. It was a saying among the Christians of antiquity, founded in experience, that “the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church.”

In the third place, Jesus Christ requires no service from his disciples, for which he does not furnish them with necessary assistance. He is not a hard task master. “His yoke is easy, and his burden is light;” for as his commandments are reasonable, so by his grace we are enabled to obey them. When Peter and John were called to plead his cause before the Jewish council, they were “filled with the Holy Ghost.” Hence cowardly fishermen became undaunted Apostles; simple and uneducated men have put learning to silence; and delicate women have endured, with unshaken firmness, cruel tortures, and death in its most terrible forms. “As thy days, so shall thy strength be.”

In the fourth place, Great is the truth, and it shall prevail. It confounded and silenced the Jewish council; it made foolish the wisdom of the world, vanquishing its vain philosophy and sophistical eloquence by the plain doctrine of the cross; it will, in like manner triumph over the petulant and malignant opposition of infidelity; and a future age shall see superstition in all its modifications, delusions of every kind, enthusiasm, heresy, error, and licentiousness, vanish before it, as the shade of night before the sun. From what it has already done, we may calculate the effects which are yet to be expected from it. “When the Lord shall send the rod of his strength out of Zion, the people shall be willing in the day of his power; and he shall rule in the midst of his enemies.”

Lastly, Let us be careful to maintain a good conscience in our religious profession. This was the constant study of the Apostles, who considered not what was honourable in the eyes of the world, and advantageous, and safe, but solely what was right. It was God alone whom they had resolved to obey; and they minded not the contrary commands and the threatenings of men. You will not enjoy peace of mind, nor act uprightly and consistently, till you have learned to regulate your conduct by the fixed standard of truth and rectitude, and not by the shifting opinions and fancies of men. There is one thing, in particular, of which you should beware; the vain attempt to serve two Masters, God and the world, conscience and inclination. The result of such an attempt will be, that you shall serve neither of them fully, and shall lose the reward promised by both. Choose your side, and be honest and uniform in adhering to it. “If the Lord be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” Know neither father nor mother, neither sister nor brother, in your choice of religion. “Hearken, O daughter, and consider, and incline thine ear: forget also thine own people, and thy father’s house.” This should be the language of our lips and our hearts. “Speak, Lord, for thy servants hear. We renounce our own will; we desire only to know thine; and through thy grace we will do it, without startling at the consequences. Our souls and our bodies are thy property, for thou hast redeemed them; and we therefore dedicate them to thy service. O Lord our God, other lords besides thee have had dominion over us; but by thee only will we make mention of thy name.”


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