4:21-31–Paul Explains the Conflict between Issac and Ishmael


VERSE 21:  Paul Gives an Appeal
“Tell me, ye that desire to be under the Law, do you not hear the Law?”

We might put it this way, “Alright, you people who want so much to be under the Law, then you tell me, ‘You hear it being read don’t you’”?

“Tell me,”
Literally:  “Tell me”

Paul’s use of this command is quite interesting.  The Lord Jesus used this same phrase in Luke 7:42–“Tell Me therefore, which of them will love him most?”  This is really the language of reasoning from the heart of someone who cares for those being questioned.  Paul is now putting these Galatian believers to the question.  He wants them to answer from the Law his question which was taken out of the Law. 

         “ye that desire to be under the Law,”
         Literally:  “those desiring to be under Law”

         You who desire to incorporate the Mosaic institutions with Christianity, and thus bring yourselves into bondage to circumcision, and all the other variety of oppressive rites; you who of your own accord are madly courting that which must condemn and ruin you.

         They were not yet under the Law, but they were willing to be.  Paul’s use of the word “desire” indicates that the Galatians were still in a state of uncertainty (probably wishful thinking). They had not gone completely into legalistic bondage, but they were rapidly heading that way.  He knew that their minds and will had to be corrected immediately.  He wanted them to be sure they really understood what they wanted to be caught up in.  Please understand that Paul’s first use of the word “Law” is as a system while his second use is as referring to the Mosaic Law, or even the entire Penta-teuch.  Note: that the definite article “the” is not in the original Greek text, and the correct rendering is, “those desiring to be under Law (legal system).

         “do you not hear the Law?”
         Literally:  “do you not hear the Law?”

         In these verses Paul illustrates the difference between believers who rested in Christ only and those Judaizers who trusted in the Law.  He does this by a comparison taken from the story of Isaac and Ishmael.  He does this in such a way as to strike and impress their minds, and to convince them of their great weakness in departing from the truth, and allowing themselves to be deprived of the liberty of the gospel:  “Tell me,” he says, “you who so desire to be under the Law, don’t you even listen to the Law?” 
         To “hear the Law” is to read it, to understand it, to believe it, and to obey it.  Christ said, “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith…” (cf. Rev. 2:7). 

VERSES 22-23:   Paul Gives Them a History Lesson
“For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a free woman.”

 “For it is written,”
  Literally:  “For it has been written”

It has been written in Gen. 16:15; 21:2-3.  Remember the story?  When Abraham was 75 years old, God promised him that he would have a son, and that this son would be the father of nations.  But after 10 years had passed, and there was no son, his wife Sarah encouraged him to have a son by her Egyptian slave woman, Hagar.  Abraham did as Sarah advised him, and this son, whom he named Ishmael, was born when Abraham was 86 years old (Gen. 16:1-16), but he was not the promised son.  However, as God had promised, Sarah did conceive and bore Issac when she was 90 years old and Abraham was 100 (Gen. 21:1-15).

“that Abraham had two sons,”
Literally:  “Abraham had two sons”

Actually, Abraham had more than just these two sons.  After Sarah died, he married Keturah by whom he had six more sons (Gen. 25:1-2), but Paul is only interested in the story of Abraham’s first two sons.

         “the one by a bondmaid”
         Literally:  “one out of the slave woman”

         This is referring to Ishmael, who was born of Sarah’s Egyptian slave woman, Hagar.  Ishmael was the result of human planning and effort.  Abraham believed that he would have children, but when no child was born to Sarah, as had been promised by God, he heeded the advice of his wife and had a sexual relationship with Hagar.  In a sense, we might say that Ishmael was born by faith and works.
         In ancient cultures a childless wife would often give her slave woman as a concubine to her husband, and any child that the slave woman would have would legally be considered to be the child of the wife.  Both Rachel and Leah practiced this with Jacob, (Gen. 30:3, 9).  Although this was a natural law of the time, but Paul was using this as an argument that a man cannot receive the divine promise by human method.

         “the other by a free woman.”
         Literally:  “and one out of the free woman.”

         Isaac was by Sarah, Abraham's proper and lawful wife, who was mistress of the family, and represented in type the covenant, and Church, and all believers, Gentiles as well as Jews, as under the liberty of the Gospel.
         Issac, unlike Ishmael, was conceived “by promise.”  He was conceived and born when it was humanly impossible for Abraham and Sarah to have a child, and they both knew it.  They had to trust God alone for the fulfillment of His pledge.  Only Almighty God could bring life out of the deadness of Sarah’s womb–“Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged Him faithful Who had promised.  Therefore sprang there even of one, and him as good as dead, so many as the stars of the sky in multitude, and as the sand which is by the sea shore innumerable” (Heb. 11:11-12).
      These two women represent the two covenants:  the Abrahamic and the Mosaic Covenants.  Each had its own purpose, but each differed from the other in purpose and action. Paul identified the first (the Abrahamic) with the slave woman Hagar and uses it to drive home his point of the inferiority of Mosaic legalism.

“But he
{who was} of the bond-woman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman {was} by promise”

         “But he {who was} of the bond-woman”
         Literally:  “But he indeed of the slave woman”

This is obviously referring to Ishmael, whose mother was Hagar, the Egyptian slave of Sarah, the slave given to Sarah by Pharaoh when Abraham was in Egypt and had attempted to deceive Pharaoh into believing that Sarah was his sister When Pharaoh found out about the deception, and feared that Yahveh God would deal with him, he ordered Abraham out of Egypt and gave Abraham and Sarah slaves and many gifts, just to “get out of Dodge” (Gen. 12:10-20).      

         “was born after the flesh;”
         Literally:  “has been born according to flesh”

The circumstances surrounding Ishmael’s birth were not ordained of God and therefore were considered to be “natural.”  God would bring fruit to Abraham, but in His own time, not in Abraham’s time and thinking, and without the aid of Abraham’s conniving wife.  From the very first when God had promised Abraham a son Sarah had shown unbelief even then, for she had laughed when she heard that she would bear a son (Gen. 18:12).

         “but he of the freewoman”
         Literally:  “and he of the freewoman”

This is obviously referring to the birth of Issac and his being born of his mother who was the free wife of Abraham.

         {was} by promise”
         Literally:  “through the promise”

Through the promise (covenant) that God had made with Abraham.  Issac’s birth was totally the working of God.  Abraham and Sarah were both beyond the age of childbearing.  Hence the promise of God was miraculously fulfilled and the birth of Issac was clearly demonstrated to be the working of God from start to finish.

Hagar Represents the Old Covenant of the Law,
Made on Mt. Sinai.

VERSES  24-25:  Brth by Works of the Law
“Which things are an allegory:  for these are two covenants, the one from the Mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is  Agar”                                                                                              

         “Which things are an allegory:”
         Literally:  “Which things is being allegorized”

            This is obviously referring to the different accounts of Ishmael and Isaac.  Paul is not denying the actual historical narrative, but is using it in an allegorical sense to illustrate his point for the benefit of his readers who are tempted to place themselves under the burden of the Law. He puts a secondary meaning on the narrative. The allegory in one sense is a speaking parable such as John Bunyan uses in his Pilgrim’s Progress, and Jesus did in the Prodigal Son in Luke 15:1ff.,and the Good Shepherd in John 10:1ff.
            Paul uses the story to illustrate the effect of servitude to the Mosaic Law compared with the freedom of the Gospel.  He doesn’t mean to say that the historical record of Moses was not true, or was merely allegorical; neither is he saying that Moses meant this to be an allegory, or that he intended that it should be applied to the exact purpose to which Paul is applying it.

         “for these are two covenants,”
         Literally:  “for these are two covenants”

         Hagar and Sarah represent the “two covenants”:  with Sarah representing the New Covenant which is referring to iHeb. 8:6-7–“…now He obtained a more excellent ministry, by how much also He is the Mediator of a better covenant, which was established upon better promises.  For if that first {covenant} had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second” and Jer. 31:31-34.  These signify two different systems of religion; the one by Moses, the other by the Messiah.
        The two covenants here referred to are the one on Mount Sinai made with the Jews, and the other that which is made with the people of God in the gospel. The one resembles the condition of bondage in which Hagar and her son were; the other the condition of freedom in which Sarah and Isaac were.  Among the Jews the bondage of the mother determined that of the child, the children of the free Covenant of Promise, answering to Sarah, are free; the children of the legal covenant of bondage are not, but are under bondage.

         “the one from the Mount Sinai,”
         Literally:  “one indeed from Mount Sinai”

That is, he has his origin from Mount Sinai. Hence, it appears, Paul is speaking of of the moral law (3:19) chiefly (Heb. 12:18). Paul was familiar with the district of Sinai in Arabia (Ga 1:17), having gone thither after his conversion. At the giving of the Law, he learned to appreciate, by contrast, the grace of the Gospel, and so to cast off all his past legal dependencies.

            “which gendereth to bondage,”
            Literally:  “bring forth to slavery”

            That is, bringing forth children unto bondage; i.e., bearing children to bondage; is herself a bond women, and bears children in the same condition with herself. There is here a blending together of Hagar and the covenant which she represents. The children of the Mosaic covenant represented by Hagar are those who live under it.  Paul is driving home the point that the laws are stern and severe; and the observance of them costly, and lead to a state of bondage.
            As the bond maid or slave could only bring forth her children, in a state of slavery, and subject also to become slaves, so all that are born and live under those Mosaic institutions are born and live in a state of bondage; that is a bondage to various rites and ceremonies; under the obligation to keep the whole Law, yet, from its severity and their frailness, obliged to live in the habitual breach of it, and in consequence exposed to the curse which it pronounces–“For whosoever shall keep the whole Law, and yet offend in one {point} he is guilty of all (James 2:10).
            Paul is again emphasizing that to be under the Law was to be in “bondage.”  The Law demonstrated that men were slaves to sin and that as a consequence they were under the curse of the Law (3:10).  Ishmael thus represented the attempt to receive the Abrahamic blessing by the works of the Law.  Just as Ishmael did not receive the inheritance, so no person can be born again by BOTH faith and obedience to the law.

         “which is Agar”
         Literally:  “which is Hagar”

Which covenant is typified by Agar.  Facts recorded by direction of the Holy Spirit in the O.T. are often striking illustrations of truths revealed in the New, and were designed by God to convey instruction N.T. truths. 

“For this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children.”

“For this Agar is Mount Sinai in Arabia,”
 Literally:  “For Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia”

She and her son Ishmael well represent the covenant at Sinai and those who are in bondage to its burdensome rites.  Paul is attempting to show to these Galatians that Hagar well represents the Law given on Mount Sinai. No one can believe that Paul meant to say that Hagar was literally Mount Sinai.

         “and answereth to Jerusalem which now is,”
         Literally:  “and corresponds to the present Jerusalem”

Hagar symbolized First Century Jerusalem, or Jerusalem in Paul’s time, or was is the case with the inhabitants of Jerusalem then who reject the Messiah, and were therefore in bondage to the Mosaic law.

            “and is in bondage with her children.”
            Literally:  “and she slaves with her children”

         The Jewish people were trying to gain the righteousness of God by their own efforts:  i.e.,  by their conformity to the sacrificial system that was centered in the Jerusalem temple, by their circumcision, and by their conformity to the Mosaic Law.  This same conformity is what the Judaizers were attempting to impose on the Galatian believers.  To combat this, Paul is trying to drive home to them the inferiority of the Mosaic legalism.  To sum up Paul’s argument:  just as Hagar was in bondage, so also were the Jews in bondage to the Law, so why should the Galatians wish to place themselves under such bondage?
         Just as Jerusalem was in political bondage to Rome, so the Jewish people, “her children,” were in spiritual bondage.  They could only be set free by faith in Christ alone.

Sarah stands for the New Covenant in Christ Jesus;
God’s new way of dealing with sin–the Child of Promise.

VERSES 26-27:  Birth by Faith in the Promise          

“But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.”

         “But Jerusalem which is above”
         Literally:  “But the above Jerusalem”

         Paul here is referring to the true spiritual Jerusalem, which is in heaven, where Christ is its Head.  Paul is using the rabbinical idea that the heavenly Jerusalem corresponds to the one here to illustrate his point without endorsing their ideas (see Rev 21:2). He is also using the city of Jerusalem to represent the whole Jewish race. 
         The Jews imagine that every earthly thing has its representative in heaven; and especially whatever concerns Jerusalem, the Law, and its ordinances. Rabbi Kimchi, speaking of Melchizedec, king of Salem, says: “This is the Jerusalem that is from above.” 

         This “heavenly Jerusalem” is described in Heb. 12:22-24 in terms of those present:  the angels, redeemed persons and Christ Himself.  The apostle John looks forward in time to when this heavenly Jerusalem will ascend to earth, and he describes all the beauties and wonders of this city (Rev. 21-22).  

         “is free,”
         Literally:  “is free”

         The spirit of the gospel is that of freedom. It is freedom from sin, freedom from the bondage of rites and customs, and it tends to promote universal freedom.
         To contrast a system of being born in bondage, Paul now is emphasizing a system of freedom.  He is now giving a contrast to bring born out of a system of legalistic bondage; thus he is saying that a sinner could not be delivered out of conformity to the laws of earthly Jerusalem; rather, He must be born out of a free system the same as Issac was born of Sarah.  Therefore, we can conclude that this heavenly Jerusalem, which is free, represents Sarah, in contrast to Hagar, and ultimately, to grace, and the pathway to salvation of faith, and its contrast to the earthly Jerusalem which represents legalism Judaism.

         “which is the mother of us all.”
         Literally:  “who is the mother of us all”

         The word “all” is not in most Greek texts. The mother of those who are true Christians, whether we are by birth Jews or Gentiles.  All who believe in Christ, are free citizens of the New Jerusalem.
         Sarah represents the system which produces heirs of God through Christ (4:7).  Just as God had to quicken the deadness of Sarah’s womb, so God must also quicken those who are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1).  When one, like Sarah, realizes he cannot do anything to bring about the fulfillment of the divine promise, he will simply trust in the sovereign power of god to save him.  Therefore, we should not yield ourselves to any degrading and abasing servitude of any kind. 

“For it is written, ‘Rejoice
{thou} barren that bearest not; break forth and cry, thou that travailest not:  for the desolate hath more children than she which hath an husband.”

         “For it is written,”
         Literally:  “For it has been written”

         Paul is referring to a passage that is found in Isa. 54:1. Paul’s object here seems to be to prove that the Gentiles as well as the Jews would partake of the privileges connected with the heavenly Jerusalem. He had in the previous verse spoken of the Jerusalem from above as the common mother of all true believers, whether they be Jews or Gentiles. This might be disputed or doubted by the Jews; and so he added this proof from the O.T.  Even if it was not doubted, still the quotation was pertinent, and would illustrate what he had just said.
         The mention of Jerusalem as a mother seems to have suggested this text. Isaiah speaks of Jerusalem as a female that had been long desolate and childless, but who was now rejoicing by a large accession from the Gentile world, and increased in numbers like a female who should have more children than Israel who had been long married (the “wife” of God). The illustration is that the church is reproducing (winning souls) while yet is unmarried (only espoused) to her heavenly Bride Groom.  Paul is referring to this when he says that the whole church, Jews and Gentiles alike, were the children of the heavenly Jerusalem and were represented here as a rejoicing mother. Paul did not literally quote from the Hebrew text but rather used the Septuagint (LXX) version, and he did keep the sense of the passage, which is that the accession from the Gentile world would be far more numerous than the Jewish people had ever been.  This prophecy that has been greatly fulfilled.

         “Rejoice {thou} barren that bearest not;”
         Literally:  “Be glad, barren {one} not bearing”

         As a woman who has had no children would rejoice. This represents probably the pagan/Gentile world as having been apparently forsaken and abandoned, and with whom there had been none of the true children of God.  Paul here is referring to the heathen nations, who, like a barren woman, were destitute, for many ages, of a seed to serve the Lord. 
         You that for so long was desolate shall at length bear more children than the Judaism which was of old espoused to God.  Paul is telling these Galatians, that like Sarah, they should rejoice in God’s gracious provision of life and redemption through Christ’s death and resurrection (6:14).  Sarah did not rejoice in the birth of Ishmael, and Paul did not rejoice over the influence of the Judaizers. 

         “for the desolate hath more children than she which hath an husband.”
         Literally;  “for more {are} the children of the desolate rather she having the husband”

This is probably referring to the Jewish people as in covenant with God, and often spoken of as married to Him.  She who was “desolate” and apparently forsaken literally refers to a woman who had seemed to be desolate and forsaken, who was unmarried refers to the Gentile world that did not know God. The prophet Isaiah is referring to Sarah's prolonged barrenness and Paul uses this fact as a figure for the progress and glory of Christianity (the new Jerusalem of freedom) in contrast with the old Jerusalem of bondage (the current Judaism).

VERSES 28-31:  Application of the Teaching

VERSE 28:  The Identification
“Now we, brethren, as Issac was, are the children of promise”

         “Now we, brethren,”
         Literally:  “but we brothers”

This means we who are believers; we who believe in the Lord Jesus.  Paul is now identifying himself with the true Galatian converts.

         “as Issac was,”
         Literally:  “according to Issac”

According to the way Issac was; just like Issac was.  Paul goes on to equate himself, and them with Issac.  All the “spiritual” children of Sarah are like Issac–children of the promise.

         “are the children of promise”
         Literally:  “we are children of promise”

         Paul is telling these Galatians believers that they are already “children of promise;.”  That all of them are, present tense, children of promise, just as Issac was.  The same is true of believers today.  Our spiritual birth is a new birth, which comes about by our believing the promise of God–“For God so love the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have (present tense) everlasting life” (John 3:16).  This is an un-conditional promise, given with no strings attached to us of our “holding out” or not sinning.  It is based strictly upon the honesty and integrity of Almighty God Himself.  Simply stated, it says, that if we trust Him, we will be born again, “Being born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word (promise) of God, which liveth and abideth foreever” (I Pet. 1:23).  How much simpler, clearer, and plainer can it be made?
         Issac received the blessing of Abraham because he was begotten of the right mother and in the right way.  Paul and these Galatian believers had also received the spiritual blessings of the new covenant because they were regenerated by faith ALONE in Christ.  Paul is saying, All the children of Sarah are brethren in this brotherhood of freedom, we are, “after the category of Issac”; and if we are all in the same category, then we are all children of promise.  Then why are you so bent on trying to live as children of bondage?

VERSE 29:  In Persecution
“But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him {that was born} after the Spirit, even so {it is} now.”

         “But as then he that was born after the flesh”
        Literally:  “But then, even as he born according to flesh”

Paul now reverts back to speaking of Ishmael who was born after the flesh-whose birth had nothing supernatural in it, but was according to the ordinary course of nature.  In this verse Paul is bringing in focus in whole point in using this allegory of the two women and two births.

         “persecuted him {that was born} after the Spirit, even”
         Literally:  “persecuted the {one} according to Spirit”

Ishmael mocked and ridiculed Issac to the point that Sarah demanded that he be expelled from their midst.  Ishmael was fourteen years old when Issac was born.  He mocked when Abraham proclaimed a great feast in celebration of the day that Issac was weaned.

         “even so {it is} now.”
         Literally:  “so also now”

         What took place with Ishmael became real in his descendants.  Those who have any intelligent perspective on the Arab-Israeli conflict should bear in mind that this animosity between these two peoples has existed ever since the days of Abraham.
         That is, Christians, the children of the promise, are persecuted by the Jews, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, “as it now is,” and who are uninterested in the promises, just like Ishmael.  It does not appear that the apostle Paul was ever set upon by the Gentiles, unless they were first stirred up by the Jews, except in two instances. One of these was at Philippi, after the cure of the Pythoness, (Acts 16:19;) and the other at Ephesus, at the instance of Demetrius, (Acts 19:24). The persecutions of the Christians arose, therefore, mainly from the Jews–from those who were in bondage to the Law, and to rites and customs; and Paul's allusion here to the case of the persecution which Isaac the free-born son endured, is exceedingly pertinent and happy.

         So the Jews, in every place, persecute the Christians; and show thereby that they are rather of the posterity of Hagar than of Sarah.  The lesson is that true believers can always expect to be persecuted by those who oppose Christ and His gospel. In Galatia the Judaizerrs were making fun (mocking) Paul’s apostleship and simple message.  If you preach the gospel, you will get in trouble.  This is the reason that the gospel message has been so watered down today, because far too many preachers do not have the backbone to stand for it.  Today we hear very little true gospel; that is, the pure grace of God, being preached.  Preachers today know that if they do preach it, they will receive much criticism from their congregations and church “leaders.”    People today still say, “But I have to do something.”  If this be true, then Jesus’ sacrifice on Calvary’s cross was in vain, useless, not good enough for God.  The “natural man” hates the true gospel because it totally leaves him and his efforts out of the picture, and places Christ and His work on Calvary in the picture.

VERSE 30:  In Discipline
“Nevertheless what saith the Scripture?  Cast out the bondman and her son:  for the son of the bondwoman shall not be with the son of the freewoman.”

         “Nevertheless what saith the Scripture?”
         Literally:  “But what says the Scripture?”

In effect, Paul is saying that is enough of what I have had to say about the subject.  What does the Scripture have to say about the subject?

         “Cast out the bondman and her son:”
        Literally:  “Cast out the slave woman and her son”

         When Sarah saw that Ishmael was mocking Issac, and making his life miserable, she demanded that Abraham drive both Hagar and Ishmael out from their household (Gen. 21:9-10).  This was the language of Sarah, in an address to Abraham, requesting him to cast out Hagar and Ishmael, (Gen. 21:10)–“Wherefore she said unto Abraham, ‘Cast out this bondwoman and her son:  for the son of this bondwoman shall not be heir with my son…’”
         What does this imply in the present case?  It implies that the present Jerusalem and her children shall be cast out of the favor of God, and shall not be heirs with the son of the free woman-shall not inherit the blessings promised to Abraham, because they believe not in the promised seed. In like manner will God cast out all who seek to be justified by the law; especially if they persecute them who are His children by faith. 

 “for the son of the bondwoman shall not be with the son of the freewoman.”
  Literally:  “for in no way shall the son of the slave {woman} inherit with the son of the free”

         This is probably Sarah’s real reason that Ishmael would not be a joint heir with Issac and would receive the covenant blessing–“shall not be with the son of the freewoman.”  In the original Greek, the “not” is very emphatic, and literally means, “he shall absolutely, positively not inherit.” 
         Paul is saying that they were to reject everything like servitude and bondage and that they were to adhere only to that which was free.   He is emphasizing that the Law and the gospel cannot co-exist. The law must disappear before the gospel.  By analogy, Paul wanted the Galatian believers to excommunicate the Judaizers (spiritual Hagar) and the members who had accepted the heretical teachings (the sons).  Sarah did not tolerate Hagar and Ishmael in her midst, and neither should the church permit the apostates to permit. 

         Even today, Christ is saying, “Get rid of the legalism that has infested My churches.”  Any local church that will not practice church discipline is asking for trouble, and is being disobedient toward its Head, for He will not for long stand for His local assembly to become polluted without Himself bringing out discipline.

VERSE 31:  In Summary
“So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free”

         “So then, brethren,”
         Literally:  “Then, brothers”

Therefore, to sum it up what has been said:  it is impossible to be born of two mothers.  The heir cannot be born of both the free and the slave woman; you can either be free, or you can be a slave, but you must decide which you wish to be.  The Judaizers claimed that a person had to be saved by both faith and works of legalism, but such a concept is virtually impossible, for  such a view reduces salvation to works alone.  It totally negates grace. 


         “we are not children of the bondwoman,”
         Literally:  “we are not children of a slave woman”

Not under the Mosaic dispensation represented by her, but under the gospel dispensation represented by the free-woman; of the free woman (whose son was, according to Scripture, to be heir).  We have nothing to do with the Mosaic dispensation which only can bring enslavement.

         “but of the free”
         Literally:  “but of the free woman”

Being free from the curse and the bond of that law, and from the power of sin and Satan.  We are free from subjection to Mosaic rites and ceremonies, and cannot without great guilt and danger seek salvation from the observance of them. A state of freedom is much to be preferred to a state of bondage.

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