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Chapter 6:

The Four Horsemen and the Tribulation Martyrs

The Rapture of God’s living believers will occur at the opening of the sixth seal of Revelation. This means that the first five seals will be opened in heaven prior to the rapture and prior to the beginning of the Day of the Lord. Here is a description of the breaking of these first five seals as described in Revelation 6:1-11,

"I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest.

"When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, "Come!" Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword.

"When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!"

"When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, "Come!" I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth.

"When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed."

The first four seals describe the appearance of the infamous "Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse," and the fifth speaks of a great persecution of believers. The previous chapters have endeavored to show how the sixth seal marks the definitive beginning of the end, and after it is opened the people on the earth cry out, "The great day of God’s wrath has come!" With the sixth seal comes the rapture, and the 70th Week of Daniel begins some time after that. In light of this understanding, we will examine the first five seals to see what they might possibly represent and how they will affect mankind prior to the rapture.

First we will examine two possibilities for what the four horsemen might represent:

 

1. The Powers of the Four Horsemen: Setting the Stage for the Day of the Lord

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse represent very unique judgments. The symbolism involved separates them from the rest of the seals, trumpets and bowls, and at the same time relates them to each other. The four horsemen must be understood as an intimate group with a common mission. The first possibility that will be considered is that these four horsemen are armed with distinct powers in the moments prior to the rapture, and that these powers are then exercised throughout the Day of the Lord.

The arming of the second and fourth horsemen is shown very explicitly:

"Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other."

"I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth."

The power that is associated with the first horseman is not explicitly defined, but after this rider is given a crown, the text implies that he is given the power of conquest.

The third horseman also appears to be given a power, and this power may be related to famine, because a scarcity of food would explain the high cost: "A quart of wheat for a day's wages…"

The powers of the four horsemen would then be exercised simultaneously throughout the Day of the Lord until the appearance of the fifth horseman in Revelation 19:11,

"I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and makes war."

This rider is Jesus Christ, who appears at the end of the Day of the Lord to destroy the armies of the Antichrist at Armageddon and to judge the inhabitants of the earth. The rider seen at the opening of the first seal also rides a white horse, but he most likely represent the conquests of the counterfeit Christ, the Antichrist.

Here are the powers associated with the four horsemen:

First Seal – The rider of the white horse is given the power to conquer. These conquests are associated with the rise of the Antichrist and the New World Order.

Second Seal – The rider of the red horse is given the power to cause warfare upon the earth. There will be a number of wars that are predicted to occur throughout the Tribulation period.

Third Seal – The rider of the black horse is associated with the power of famine. Food will be extremely scarce for most people during the Tribulation. Plagues of darkness, contaminated water in the rivers and seas, meteor impacts, extreme heat from the sun and climate changes from the shifting of the globe will all be problems detrimental to agriculture during this time. Food will be expensive and hard to find.

Fourth Seal – The rider of the pale horse is given power over one fourth of the earth, to kill by the means of warfare, famine, plague and wild beasts. A massive number of human beings will perish during the end times.

One other point to consider regarding the powers of the four horsemen, is that the judgments associated with them appear to be passive and/or secondary judgments. The rest of the seals, trumpets and bowls are all judgments that are primarily active: God causes the earth to shake, He causes the hail and fire to fall, He causes the sun and moon to go dark, He causes the water to turn to blood, He causes the sun to burn hotter, et cetera. However, the first four seals seem to represent effects that are secondary or judgments that are passive: God allows the Antichrist to conquer, He allows warfare as a result of the chaos. Famine is a secondary result of other judgments, and Death is a secondary result as well. The four horsemen may simply represent the additional characteristics of the Tribulation period that are not brought about by any of God’s active judgments, but which represent God’s judgments nonetheless. The Tribulation will indeed be characterized by the continual problems associated with the Antichrist’s ruthless rise to power, warfare, continual famine and widespread loss of life.

So in summary, the first possibility to consider is that the seals that introduce the four horsemen are opened in heaven in the brief moments prior to the sixth seal. They serve to set the stage for what is soon to come and the four horsemen then exercise their powers of destruction simultaneously throughout the end-times tribulation until Jesus Christ returns as the fifth horseman.

 

2. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: the birthpains of the Tribulation

The second possibility regarding the first four seals is that they represent events that lead up to the Tribulation, and that they have already been opened. This is perhaps the most credible interpretation of the four horsemen because it is derived by comparing the first four seals with the words of Jesus within His end-times sermon on the Mount of Olives, as recorded in Matthew 24:3-14 (KJV),

"And as he sat upon the mount of Olives, the disciples came unto him privately, saying, Tell us, when shall these things be? and what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?

"And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows."

The table below demonstrates how the first four seals of Revelation seem to correspond to the events described by Jesus:

Jesus

Revelation

"Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many."

First seal: "I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest."

"And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…"

Second seal: "Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay each other. To him was given a large sword."

"…and there shall be famines…"

Third seal: "I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, ‘A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!’ "

"…and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows."

Fourth seal: "I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth."


If we accept Jesus as the interpreter of the first four seals, then we must conclude that these seals have already been opened in the past. The first seal would have been opened long ago, and it would have been fulfilled in the numerous false Christs over the ages. The second would have been fulfilled in the major wars that have raged in the past and in this century, the third might be seen as fulfilled in the terrible famines of Africa, Asia and other poor nations, and the fourth could also be seen as fulfilled in the problems which plague the most chaotic and undeveloped fourth part of the earth.

Perhaps the above interpretation is the correct one, but let’s examine the words of Jesus a little bit more intently. He gave a number of signs, but He classified them into two categories: Signs that do not indicate the approach of the end times, and Signs that do indicate the approach of the end times. He referred to these latter signs as the "beginning of sorrows." The word translated as "sorrows" is from a Greek word that refers to the pains of a woman about to give birth. These latter signs are the "birth pains" of the time of the end. Here is what Jesus said:

Signs that do not signal the approach of the end-

"And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet."

Signs that indicate the birth pains of the end-times-

"For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows."

According to Jesus the first sign that mankind should view as indicative of the "birth pains" of the end-times is the sign of nation rising against nation and kingdom rising against kingdom. When Jesus mentioned this sign He was describing something that is very well known within Judaism. It is a Hebrew Messianic expression that refers specifically to an unprecedented world war. This idea has always been understood in Judaism, and in an ancient Jewish commentary, the Bereshit Rabbah, section XLII:4, it is stated, "If you shall see kingdoms rising against each other in turn, then give heed and note the footsteps of the Messiah." 1

Judaism understands this sign as an indicator of the approach of the Messiah and Jesus confirmed in His Olivet Discourse that it would indeed be an indicator of His second coming. It would be the first sign indicating the soon approach of the end, the first visible birth pain of the approaching Tribulation.

World War II may have been this sign, because it was truly an unprecedented worldwide conflict, both in terms of devastation and loss of life, and in terms of land area involved. It was fought on the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa and it involved North America and Australia as well, and it was also fought on both major oceans. It was truly an unprecedented global conflict, far outclassing previous wars such as World War I, the Napoleonic Wars, the Crusades, et cetera. This conflict may be represented in Revelation as the rider of the red horse who is given power to make men slay each other at the breaking of the second seal.

The second birth pain that Jesus describes is the sign of famine. This compares to the rider of the black horse introduced in Revelation at the breaking of the third seal. However, there may be more to this horseman than just the idea of famine. He is also shown holding a pair of scales in his hand. The scales have always been understood as a universal symbol for justice. In fact, there are two symbolic statues of Justice in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington D.C. that are shown carrying scales. The scales that are held by the third horseman might identify him with the idea of justice.

When the rider of the black horse is introduced in Revelation, voices also speak out and say, "A quart of wheat for a day's wages, and three quarts of barley for a day's wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine!" Very simply, we are being told that food will be very expensive at a time when oil and wine remain undamaged. When we apply these words to the idea of justice the picture gets clearer. Those laboring an entire day for a miniscule amount of food may represent the lower classes of humanity, while the undamaged wine and oil may represent the luxuries enjoyed by the higher classes. Is this not what Western society is based on today: "Keep the oil flowing for our economy, and keep the intoxicating liquor flowing in celebration!"

The end of the 20th Century witnessed a major increase between the rich and the poor, and between the developed Western world, and the undeveloped Third World. Oil is the single most important commodity that powers the economies of the West, and at the same time its people drink wine and enjoy their easy and carefree self-indulgent lifestyles. At the same time the vast majority of humanity is forced to labor for pennies a day just to put food on the table! Of course Americans bristle at the notion that their prosperity has come about by anything other than their own hard work, but the fact is that much of the prosperity of the West has been built on the cheap labor and plundered resources of the Third World. Perhaps this is the idea that is meant to be conveyed when the rider of the black horse is introduced. Does God accept the many excuses the West brings up to explain why Africa’s standard of living has steadily gone down during a time when ours has shot up? Perhaps God sees this as a great injustice that will exist in the world prior to the time of the end, and it may be represented by the rider holding a pair of scales at the breaking of the third seal.

The fourth seal may correspond to the "pestilence" described by Jesus as another birth pain of the end-times. When it is opened the famous rider of the Pale Horse enters. He is death and he is followed by Hell. They are given power over a fourth of the earth. (This is one-fourth in terms of land area, whereas the sixth trumpet describes one-third in terms of human lives lost.) They are allowed to kill through warfare, famine, plague and wild beasts, and these are the dangers that threaten the people who happen to live in the poorest of the earth’s nations. They are continually manipulated by civil wars, threatened with famine, ravaged by disease and a lack of decent health care, and worried by wild animals that they must compete with for food. This seems to be a very apt description of Africa and the poorer areas of Southeast Asia. It may indeed refer to the harshest fourth of the earth as it exists today. The pestilences mentioned by Jesus may also refer to the rise of AIDS, mad cow disease, hoof and mouth, et cetera.

The final birth pain that Jesus mentioned was that of "earthquakes in divers places." Prophecy scholar Hal Lindsey offers the following statistics in his book, Planet Earth 2000 AD: 2

From 1940 to 1950 there were only 4 major quakes recorded in the world (6.0 or greater).
From 1950 to 1960 there were 9.
From 1960 to 1970 there were 13.
From 1970 to 1979 there were 51.
From 1980 to 1989 there were 86.
From just 1990 to 1993 there were over 100 quakes that measured 6.0 or greater.

Scientists have been able to track these huge quakes worldwide since the late 1800s, and so this is not simply an indicator that science has advanced in its ability to find earthquakes. No, it is a very real increase in earthquakes, which Jesus predicted would be a birth pain of the Tribulation period.

 

The First Seal

It is very possible that the second, third and fourth seals may all refer to the birth pains of the time of the end. Yet when we compare the first seal with what Jesus said in His Olivet Discourse, it compares to the many false Christs he predicted, which He said would not indicate the approach of the end. Somehow it does not seem right that the breaking of the very first seal of the terrible seven-sealed scroll would produce an irrelevant sign or event.

It should also be pointed out that the first seal brings forth a singular character, a rider upon a white horse who seems to mimic Jesus Christ who appears on a white horse at the Second Coming, yet Jesus spoke of many false Christs who would appear. Somehow it does not seem to compare.

When Jesus mentioned the events that were to signify the birth pains of the time of the end, the first visible sign he mentioned was the sign of a major worldwide conflict. That was the first sign that we would be able to see. But if the first seal did indeed represent a very profound and significant event then what could that be? Perhaps it represented a sign that the world would not be able to see which would explain why Jesus did not mention it.

Perhaps the opening of the first seal represents the birth of the Antichrist:

"I looked, and there before me was a white horse! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest."

Most prophecy scholars agree that the rider of the white horse, who appears at the breaking of the first seal, is a symbolic representation of the Antichrist. The Antichrist will do much that mimics the life of Jesus. As we showed in chapter three he will be killed and resurrected, and another of these similarities is that he will be born of a human mother, and grow to adulthood just as Jesus did. The birth of the Antichrist would be a hugely significant event that would place the earth on an unavoidable timeline, however this event would not have been known to the world at large. Perhaps that is why Jesus pointed instead to the World War as the visible event signifying the beginning of sorrows, or the birth pains of the end-times.

It is logical to believe that Jesus Christ will be in control of the timeline that will begin with the birth of the Antichrist, and perhaps Jesus starts this timeline when He breaks the first seal. This possibility is supported by the words of Jesus near the end of his description of the end-times, in Matthew 24:32-25

"Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh: So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors. Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away."

Many scholars have interpreted Jesus’ words regarding the fig tree to be a reference to the re-establishment of the nation of Israel in 1948. However, this is a symbolic interpretation that may not be necessary.  In Jesus’ parable of the fig tree he was simply making a comparison. He was saying that just as new leaves on a fig tree signify the approach of summer, in the same way those who view "all these things" that Jesus was talking about can know that the end is near. Jesus continued by saying that the generation which comes at the same time as "all these things" would not pass away before the end comes. "All these things" refers back to Jesus’ initial statements regarding the birth pains of the end-times.

If the world conflict described by Jesus was World War II, and if the first seal indicated the birth of the Antichrist, then this means that he was born prior to 1939. Therefore the generation born at the time of the World War would also be alive to see the end because the life of the Antichrist could not pass away before his pre-destined career was finished. "This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled." The generation born at the beginning of sorrows will also be alive to witness the end because it would coincide with the life of the Antichrist.

There are some scholars who believe that the first seal describes the appearance of the Antichrist on a public and global scale, and that the breaking of this seal represents his worldwide conquests. It is true that the Antichrist will make conquests, but his first conquests are of a more subtle nature than those made militarily. Perhaps that is why the figure on the white horse is shown armed with a bow, which is in distinction to the rider on the red horse, who does represent militarily conquests, who is armed instead with a large sword. The bow may represent a more subtle form of conquest, perhaps ideological rather than military conquests. When the Antichrist is, or was born, we can be sure that those nameless organizations, societies and individuals who support him will step up their campaign to make Anti-Christian ideology the norm within society worldwide, and to pave the way for his acceptance. Indeed, we have seen in our present day how the forces of darkness have made great conquests on an ideological level throughout the past half-century.

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So these are two possibilities that exist for understanding the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. They may refer to the broader characteristics during the entire tribulation, or they may refer to the birth pains prior to the tribulation, as Jesus may have been suggesting. It might also be possible that perhaps the four horsemen will fulfill both of these interpretations. Of course we have made some guarded speculation here, and nothing regarding our thoughts should be understood as dogmatic. The truth regarding this issue might not be fully realized until the end has actually begun. However, the main point to understand is that the definitive event which the world awaits will not be the breaking of any of these preliminary seals, and we await instead the momentous events that come about at the breaking of the sixth seal. Only then does the time of the end truly begin in earnest. Only then do the people of the earth respond in terror, yet in understanding, saying, "The great day of God’s wrath has come, and who can stand!?"

The next section will deal with the terrible persecution of believers that is predicted with the opening of the fifth seal.

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The Fifth Seal

Revelation 6:9-11, "When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed."

Once again, the very words of Jesus within His Olivet Discourse, words preserved faithfully over the centuries, seem to parallel what is described at the opening of the fifth seal. After the birth pains Jesus said in Matthew 24:9-14,

"Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come."

The parallels between these two passages are very evident, yet we must be clear here how they compare. You see, the fifth seal is opened prior to the rapture and resurrection, which comes about at the sixth seal immediately after the souls of the martyrs cry out and receive white robes. Yet the persecution Jesus describes is one that will occur after the rapture, because the saints He describes are not given a promise to be raptured and instead they are told that they must "stand firm to the end."

It is very important to understand what is described at the opening of the fifth seal. We must take care not to jump to conclusions or to add anything to what the text describes. Here is the simple outline of the fifth seal,

I. A Picture of the Martyrs- "I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained."

II. The Question- "They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ "

III. The Gift- "Then each of them was given a white robe…"

IV. The Answer- "…and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed."

The martyrs heard at the fifth seal are the martyrs from throughout the history of the Christian Church. They ask impatiently how much longer they must wait for the judgment of the earth. They understand that they will not be truly avenged until all of the inhabitants of the earth are judged. The answer they get is that there is yet a little while to wait before Jesus returns to the earth for the judgment. They are told that prior to the judgment there will still be a great many more martyrs. This is the key. Within the answer to the martyrs there is also a prediction of even more martyrs. They are described as the fellow servants and brothers of those who cry out.

The martyrs at the opening of the fifth seal are told that they must wait for the judgment of the earth. They are not told that they must wait to be resurrected, as some scholars mistakenly conclude. The martyrs did not ask ‘when will we be resurrected?’ No, they asked ‘when will the inhabitants of the earth be judged?’ After they receive their answer and their gift of white robes they are then resurrected at the opening of the sixth seal. The end result is that all believers, whether previously dead or previously alive on the earth, are then shown in heaven after the sixth seal is opened as the great multitude that stands before the throne of God and before Jesus Christ the Lamb of God. There will be no separation here. There will not be one group "before the throne" and another group "under the altar." The Church will be united alive and in heaven as one group after the resurrection and rapture. They will be united, but they will still be waiting for the predestined number of tribulation martyrs to come in. After all of these martyrs have died and come into heaven as souls, then the judgment of the earth will take place, and then there will be no more waiting.

So it is the prediction that comes within the answer that was given to the martyrs at the fifth seal that compares with the prediction that Jesus made of the great persecution at the time of the end, when all nations will hate those who believe in Jesus Christ. The fifth seal itself does not describe a great persecution that will come prior to the rapture. No, it predicts a great persecution that will come after the rapture. Those who experience this terrible time of persecution are told by Jesus that they must "stand firm to the end."

The question that the fifth seal martyrs ask is very important for another reason as well and it offers an important clue. It is evidence that the 70th Week of Daniel is in the future at this point in time. If the 70th Week had already begun, and these martyrs had been killed within the 70th Week, then they would have known the answer to their question. The judgment of the inhabitants of the earth would be, at most, seven years away. The martyrs of the fifth seal would not ask a question to which they knew the answer, and their question, as well as the vague answer they get, is further evidence that the 70th Week begins sometime after the fifth seal is opened.

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Two Groups

There are two groups of believers who exist during the end-times. The first group is made up of those who are not carried away with life’s daily routine or the pleasures of this world, who are raptured prior to the end-times, escaping "all these things," to stand in heaven before the Son of Man. The second group is made up of unbelievers who are left behind after the rapture, who then turn to Jesus Christ and repent, but who must "endure unto the end."

The first group includes saints who have died throughout history, who are given white robes and resurrected before the Day of the Lord, while the second group is made up of people who die during the great tribulation, who are not resurrected until the end of the Day of the Lord: "And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years." (Revelation 20:4)

The first group is promised to be "kept from" the hour of trial (Revelation 3:10), while the second group will have to face the power of the Antichrist and resist the Mark of the Beast, to continue with "patient endurance," (Revelation 14:12).

The first group is promised to be rescued by Jesus from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10), while the second group will initially face that wrath, and then after they turn to Christ they will be hated by all nations and pursued by Satan (Revelation 12:17).

The first group will be raptured at a time when they are easily interacting with unbelievers while life is going on as normal, while the second group will find that life on earth will turn into a nightmare, and their faith will serve to separate them from those who do not worship the Lord Jesus Christ.

The first group will be in heaven throughout the Day of the Lord, while the second group will have to live through it on the earth.

 

Footnotes

1. From "The Footsteps of the Messiah," Dr. Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, Ariel Press, 1982, page v.

2. "Planet Earth 2000 AD," Hal Lindsey, Western Front Ltd., 1996, pp. 85-86.

 

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