The Sacred Oratorio

Handel and the King James Bible

Deborah Rooke

Lecture, 400th Anniversary Celebration of the King James Bible
Campbellsville University, September 22, 2011

The accompanied tenor recitative “Comfort ye my people” with which Handel’s Messiah begins is probably one of the best- known musical settings of biblical language (apart from the Hallelujah chorus, naturally!). It gives a wonderful foretaste of what is to come in the rest of the oratorio: beautiful words from the King James Bible, set to equally beautiful music in a way that fixes the words into the mind of the listener and makes it very difficult to imagine them in any other context or with any other significance than the one they’ve been given in the oratorio. There can be no doubt that Handel’s Messiah is responsible for much popular knowledge of the KJB, and also that Messiah has to a significant extent established the commonly-accepted messianic interpretation of the texts that it uses. But all is not quite as simple as it seems; Messiah’s appropriation of the KJB is far from the straightforward presentation of self-evident truth that it might appear to  be, partly because the KJB’s presentation of that truth is itself questionable and partly because Messiah doesn’t always use the KJB.

How, then, does Messiah use the KJB? And for that matter, what is Messiah all about? Messiah is a scripture collection, that is, a setting of verses taken directly from the Bible, rather than a dramatization of a biblical narrative like most of Handel’s other oratorios. Its scheme is the foretelling of the Messiah, the birth, life, atoning death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, and then the general resurrection and last judgment; but rather than speaking directly about its topic, it hints at it, often using Old Testament verses that are taken to refer to the Messiah whether or not they mention him explicitly. To that extent it speaks to those “in the know,” as it were; those who understand what is being said are those who are familiar with what the chosen verses are supposed to refer to in the context of orthodox Christian belief. The reason for this allusive quality is debated; a recent article by the American musicologist John Roberts suggests that it was a result of the reticence felt in the 18th Century about portraying Jesus on the stage, something which would have been regarded as blasphemous by many and would probably have led to prosecution.1 Ruth Smith, however, whose focus has been the oratorio libretti in their cultural and intellectual context, argues that Jennens was using Messiah to demonstrate the truth of the prophecies about Jesus and to counter the ideas of rationalistic groups such as deists, for whom the idea of an interventionist God and a religion involving divine revelation, miracles and mysteries was anathema.2 As with all such questions, the reality is probably somewhere in between these two suggestions; Charles Jennens may well have had some kind of apologetic or even polemical motivation for producing his Scripture collection, but at the same time he would have been bound by the ethical and artistic conventions of his day, and the fact that even his allusive and indirect presentation of Christianity’s central figure generated disquiet among the London audiences lends credence to the idea that anything more overt was completely out of the question.

The words for Messiah were put together by an educated gentleman named Charles Jennens, who had strong amateur interests in both theology and music.3 In making his selection of verses, Jennens used more material from the Old Testament (OT) than from the New Testament (NT), although at 3:2 in favour of the OT the ratio is not as overwhelming as might be thought. The OT material is concentrated in Parts 1 and 2, while Part 3 (the final part, referring to the general resurrection and last judgment) consists almost entirely of NT material. It is the OT material that we are to focus on here, partly because as an OT scholar I have a vested interest in it (!), but partly also because it is in relation to the OT material that the most interesting issues arise relating to the translation, interpretation and usage of the texts. The main question is, of course, what prompted Jennens to make his particular selection of OT material, and to present it as referring to the Messiah? In choosing his texts, Jennens was not starting from scratch; there seem to have been at least three main sources from which he would have drawn. The first and most obvious source is that of the Bible itself: as is well known, the NT writers cite and allude to a wide range of OT material in their presentation of the life, works and significance of Jesus of Nazareth, demonstrating thereby that he is the fulfilment of prophecy and the anointed Son of God, that is, the Messiah. And if the NT writers used a particular passage in this way, then they must have been correct to do so, because what they wrote is part of Scripture, and Scripture is the word of God. The NT is therefore regarded as an authoritative source of material on the christological interpretation of OT texts. A good example of this is in Jennens’s use of the Immanuel prophecy from Isaiah 7: the libretto says, “Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emanuel, God with us.” This is, of course, an amalgamation of two verses, namely, Isaiah 7:14, where the prophecy is first spoken – “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” – and Matthew 1:23, where after Mary has been found to be with child from the Holy Spirit the evangelist quotes the prophecy – “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which, being interpreted, is, God with us.” The understanding that the Isaiah verse refers to the birth of Jesus is deeply rooted in Christian exegesis of the OT, beginning from Matthew’s use of it, and Jennens’s amalgamation of the Old and New Testament versions of this text show that his ultimate source for this understanding is the NT itself.

Another such example is Jennens’s use of Psalm 16:10. This comes in Part 2 of Messiah; when the crucifixion has been described and interpreted using verses from Isaiah 50 and 53 and the Psalms, the libretto says, “But thou did’st not leave his soul in hell, nor did‟st thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.” The ultimate source of this quotation is, as already stated, Psalm 16:10, but Jennens uses it because it appears in the NT in Acts 2, which relates Peter’s sermon at Pentecost. In the sermon, Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah and quotes Psalm 16:10 as a prophecy of Jesus’s resurrection. So once again, the NT usage of an OT quotation validates it for Jennens as a messianic prophecy. I should perhaps point out, though, that the OT quotation in both its original context and in its use in Acts refers to the future, not to the past; that is, it reads, “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thy holy one to see corruption.” Jennens, however, seems to have had no qualms about altering it to a past-tense quotation and changing it into the third-person masculine singular, thereby presenting  the presumed prophecy as a fait accompli referring to Jesus.

Not all of the OT texts used in Messiah depend ultimately on the NT for their messianic significance, however. A second important source of inspiration for the compiler of Messiah’s libretto would have been the lectionary readings set in the 1662 Prayer Book. As shown in a 1950 article by Geoffrey Cuming, many of the texts used in Messiah are taken from readings that are set for major festivals in the Prayer Book.4 Take, for example, Isaiah 60:1-3, “Arise, shine, for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people, but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” In Messiah, this text appears in Part 1 among the material that foretells the coming of the Messiah; it is preceded by the Immanuel prophecy from Isaiah 7:14 and the exhortation to Zion to get up to the high mountain and tell Judah “Behold your God” (Isaiah 49); and it is followed by the Isaiah 9 prophecy of those walking in darkness seeing a great light for unto them a child is born. In the Prayer Book, Isaiah 60 is set as both the first reading for Christmas Eve Evensong, and the first lesson  at  Matins  on  Epiphany,  showing  that  it  had  a  clear liturgical association with the birth of Jesus and was generally interpreted as a prophecy of the same, specifically as foretelling the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. Or again, take the quotation/adaptation from Psalm 24 that appears in Part 2 of the libretto, immediately after the declaration from Psalm 16:10 that “thou didst not leave his soul in hell”: “Lift up your heads, o ye gates, and be ye lift up ye everlasting doors and the king of glory shall come in. Who is this king of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord mighty in battle, the Lord of Hosts: He is the king of glory” (Psalm 24:7-10, abbreviated). In the Prayer Book, Psalm 24 is designated to be read at evensong on Ascension Day, which implies that the “gates” are taken to be those of heaven, opening wide to receive the risen and victorious Lord, as he ascends from the earth having defeated death and sin. It is thus liturgically speaking a picture of the Ascension, which explains why Jennens included it in Messiah immediately after the text that is understood as a picture of the Resurrection.

Of course, not surprisingly many of the OT texts used in Messiah have both NT and liturgical associations; that is, they are quoted or alluded to in the NT as well as being set readings for significant festivals, and it is pretty safe to assume that their liturgical usage is rooted in their NT usage. A good example of this is the text that we heard right at the start, namely, Isaiah 40:3: “The voice of him that cryeth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” This verse is quoted in all four Gospels with reference to John the Baptist, who appears as the forerunner of the Messiah and thereby indicates that Messiah himself is close at hand. In the oratorio, Isaiah 40:3 is followed (not unnaturally) by Isaiah 40:4-5 (“Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”); these verses too appear in the NT with reference to John the Baptist, this time just in the Gospel of Luke (3:4-6). So the NT is very clear that these verses from Isaiah refer to an element of the story of Jesus, that they are in fact direct prophecies of what was to happen at the coming of the Messiah. But in addition to this Isaiah 40:1-11 is set in the Prayer Book to be read on St. John the Baptist’s day, undoubtedly because the Gospel writers had already interpreted parts of the chapter as a prophecy of John the Baptist. So what might be termed the biblical messianic associations of the chapter is reinforced by liturgical usage; and the same is true for the majority of the OT texts that appear in Messiah.

Surprisingly, there are a handful of texts in the oratorio that do not seem to have direct biblical or liturgical warrant for their association with the figure of the Messiah; but that is not to say that Jennens’s messianic interpretation of  them was unprecedented. One such text is Isaiah 35:5-6, which appears in Messiah as “Then shall the eyes of the blind be open’d, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.” It follows on from the “birth story”, where in the only narrative portion of Messiah, Jennens uses an abbreviated version of the material in  Luke about the shepherds and the angels, and then Zechariah 9:9 is used to declare “Behold, thy king cometh unto thee.” Clearly, talking about blind seeing and deaf hearing and lame leaping is meant in some way to represent the life and ministry of Jesus, but there is no significant liturgical occasion on which Isaiah 35 is used, nor are these verses quoted directly in the NT. However, turning to Isaiah 35 in the 1611 KJV, the chapter has the heading, “1The joyfull flourishing of Christes Kingdome. 3The weake are incouraged by the vertues and priviledges of the Gospel.” Further, in the margin by verses 5 and 6 are cross- references to Matthew 9:32, 11:5, 12:22, 15:30, and 21:14; Mark 7:32; John 5:8, 9; and Acts 3:2, 8:7, and 14:8, all of which are stories of miracles of healing carried out by either Jesus or the apostles. Nor is the KJV the only version to contain such interpretative hints. The Bishops’ Bible, the version in most churches prior to the KJV, heads Isaiah 35, “Of the time and kingdome of Christ”; and the Geneva Bible similarly heads the chapter, “1The great ioye of them that beleeve in Christ. 3Their office which preach the Gospel. 8The fruites that followe thereof.” There is clearly a well-established tradition of interpretation relating to Isaiah 35 that associated it with Jesus’s ministry and therefore saw in it a prophecy of that ministry.

Another such text is Haggai 2:6-7, which appears in the oratorio as: “Thus saith the Lord, the Lord of hosts: yet once a little while, and I will shake the Heavens and the Earth, the sea and the dry land, all nations I will shake, and the desire of all nations shall come.” This is a text that is not associated in the liturgy with any particular festival; 2:6 about shaking the heavens and the earth is quoted in the NT, but the really “messianic” part about the desire of all nations coming is not. And yet there is a tradition of messianic interpretation for this text too. Although the KJV chapter heading for Haggai 2 gives no indication of anything messianic about the text, the Bishops’ Bible has an intriguing marginal note by Haggai 2:6, “yet a little while,” which reads, “there passed 519 yeeres after this prophecie, before Christ came.” The Geneva Bible is more overt, though still somewhat coy about its understanding of Haggai 2:7; of the “desire of all nations,” it comments, “Meaning, Christ whome all ought to looke for and desire: or by desire, he may signifie all precious things, and riches and such like.” But within other interpretative literature, commentaries and polemical/adversarial tracts, the phrase “desire of all nations” in Haggai 2:7 is frequently and overtly taken to refer to Christ, an interpretation that is even given Jewish roots. So once again, in his choice of OT material, Jennens is plugging into a well- established tradition of messianic or christological interpretation of the OT.

But this is supposed to be a lecture about the KJV, and so far we have said very little about the content of the verses that Jennens used for Messiah. The biblical material he used certainly had a well-attested history of christological interpretation; but that interpretation is in many cases based on manipulation of the text by Christian interpreters in order to bring out what they saw as the text’s christological implications, and indeed, the translations adopted by the KJV translators reflect this same interpretative manipulation.

Isaiah 40:3, for example, with which we began: “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” This is a translation, or rather, an interpretation, that is adopted by the NT writers as they apply the text to John the Baptist who preached in the wilderness of Judaea; and it is reflected in the KJV translation not only of the gospel passages, but of the Isaiah verse itself. But it is arguably a fudge, as any OT scholar will tell you. Prophetic material in the OT is often written in poetry, and the essence of the biblical Hebrew poetic style is parallelism whereby lines and clauses are arranged in complementary or contrasting or developing series. Applying this insight to Isaiah 40:3, the most natural way of reading the Hebrew text is to take it as two parallel complementary clauses introduced by the observation that a voice is calling:

“A voice calls:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

When the lines are set out like that it is possible to see that each element in the first line is matched by a corresponding element in the second line: “In the wilderness” corresponds to “in the desert,” “prepare” corresponds to “Make straight,” and “way of the Lord” corresponds to “highway for our God.” Interestingly, the Geneva Bible and the Bishops‟ Bible, like the KJV, translate Isaiah 40:3 “A voice crieth in the wilderness: prepare ye the way of the Lord”; but Coverdale is truer to the Hebrew as he renders the verse “A voice crieth: prepare ye way for the Lord in ye wilderness.”

Another such fudge comes with the use of the “Immanuel” prophecy from Isaiah 7:14. We noted earlier that the version of the prophecy used in Messiah is a mixture of material from the Gospel of Matthew and from the prophet Isaiah: “Behold  a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Emanuel, God with us.” Much of the wording is taken from Isaiah 7:14, but the translation of the Hebrew name “Emanuel” is from Matthew 1:23, as the Isaiah passage does not explain the meaning  of  the  name  (presumably  Isaiah’s  original  Hebrew audience would have understood the meaning of names in their own language). More significant, however, is the use of the term “virgin.” The Greek of Matthew 1:23 reads, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which translated is, God with us.” But Isaiah 7:14 in its original Hebrew says, “Look! the young woman is pregnant, and about to bear a son, and you shall call his name Immanu El.” There is nothing here about a virgin or a miraculous conception, nor is it a long-term prophecy but rather one that is to be fulfilled within the next nine months. The transformation from immediate reassurance to long-term eschatological miracle was brought about by the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible made somewhere in the 3rd or 2nd centuries B.C.E. and adopted by the early Christian Church as the core of its own Bible. That was where the word “virgin” crept into Isaiah 7:14, and that was the source of the quotation in Matthew 1:23. The KJV, despite using the Hebrew text to produce its version of the OT, retains the Septuagint’s use of the term “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14, doubtless because under the influence of Matthew 1:23 it saw Isaiah 7 as a prophecy of Christ, and the witness of the NT meant that Isaiah 7 must have been talking about a virgin, not just a young woman who had conceived naturally. The page and chapter headings of the KJV for Isaiah 7 make it amply clear that the translators saw it as a prophecy of Christ. Not that the KJV is unique in this treatment of Isaiah 7; Coverdale, the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible all do the same. But arguably it is via the KJV, as embodied in the libretto of Messiah, that this becomes so firmly fixed in the public consciousness.

One extremely interesting example of what one might call rather cynically “over-evangelistic translation” is in Psalm 68:11, a verse used in Part 2 of Messiah to depict the apostles going out throughout the world to spread the gospel. “The Lord gave the word: great was the company of the preachers!” declares the oratorio confidently, and follows it up with material from Isaiah 52: how beautiful are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings (these days in the version of the verse quoted from Romans 10:18). Several observations are relevant here. First, the wording of Ps 68:11 (“The Lord gave the word: great was the company of the preachers”) is not as it appears in the KJV, but as it is given in the Psalter in the back of the Prayer Book, and this is taken from the Bishops’ Bible which preceded the KJV as the official church Bible. The KJV has, “The Lord gave the word, great was the company of those that published it.” Here, then, Messiah is not drawing on the KJV. However, more significant is the observation that both these versions obscure a fascinating grammatical fact about the Hebrew text of Ps 68:11: the word that is rendered “preachers” by the Bishops’ Bible and “those that published it” by the KJV is a feminine plural participle. In other words, these “preachers” are WOMEN. This is recognized by the Geneva Bible in its translation of the verse: “The Lord gave matter to the women to tell of the great armie.” The Geneva Bible was famed for its explanatory notes, and the note that accompanies this startling verse reads: “The facion then was, that women sang songs after the victory, as Miriam, Deborah, Judith and others.” As an explanation it makes perfect sense. Given that Psalm 68 as a whole describes how God goes forth as a warrior from Zion to scatter his and his people’s enemies, and that Psalm 68:12 speaks of kings and armies fleeing and people dividing the spoil, it is highly likely that Psalm 68:11 with its preaching women is referring to the well-established custom of women singing to celebrate their men folk’s victory in battle. Here, of course, the battle has been won by God, and so this is why the Lord is said to give “matter” to the women to sing: he has, as we would say, given them something to talk about by what he has done.

But this is a long way away from the associations with Pentecost that Psalm 68 has in the prayer book, where it is set to be read on Pentecost Sunday, and assumed to refer to the apostles who carry the gospel throughout the world. The Pentecost association and interpretation seems to have been encouraged by a number of elements: one is the use of Ps 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8 to refer to the gifts given by Christ to his church after his ascension – a reference to the events of Pentecost and the gift of the Holy Spirit. (This verse too is used in Messiah, in the item “Thou art gone up on high.”) Another may well be the use of the term ‘euangelizomenois’ in the Septuagint to render the feminine plural participle in the Hebrew. This Greek word is the basis from which we have derived our language of evangelization,  which in our culture refers specifically to spreading the story of Jesus Christ. The word would not have had those overtones for the Septuagint writers, not least because they were writing before the birth of Jesus; but once the English word with its particular overtones had developed, it would have been very difficult to resist reading back those overtones into the Greek, especially if one is operating with a view of Scripture that makes it prophetic even in what seem to be random ways. Not only is the root of the word euangelizomenois important, though, so too is the fact that it is a masculine plural, not a feminine. At a stroke, the Greek word changes Psalm 68:11 from a picture of women celebrating a victory to one of men preaching the Gospel – at least, in the eyes of 16th and 17th Century Christians whose interpretative framework for the whole of the OT was christological. And so, to return to Messiah, Jennens’s use of Ps 68:11 as part of his grand messianic schema is on strictly logical grounds illegitimate: apart from the fact that it isn’t what the KJV says (!), neither is it really what the OT says.

The final example of this kind of thing is in another of the most  famous  items  in  Messiah:  “I  know  that  my  redeemer liveth,” from Job 19:25-26. This is the only OT item in the whole of Part 3 of Messiah, the rest of which is taken from 1 Corinthians 15 and Revelation. Here again, there may well be liturgical influence in the choice of material, because both the Job verses and the material from 1 Corinthians 15 are used in the Burial Service in the Prayer Book. But what is of interest for our purposes is the wording of Job 19:25-26. Not quite as extreme as the interpretative issues for Psalm 68:11, there are still questions about how Job 19:26 in particular should be read. The KJV is convinced that 19:25-26 together refer to the general resurrection, hence the translation that is so familiar: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though after my skin, worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.” The KJV chapter heading here indicates a similar understanding: 25“He beleeveth the resurrection.” Earlier versions have a similar conviction, though expressed rather differently: the Geneva, which is closest to the KJV on this occasion, says, “For I am sure, that my Redeemer liveth, and he shall stand the last on the earth, And though after my skin [wormes] destroy this [body,] yet I shall see God in my flesh.” The Bishops’ and Coverdale versions, though, have a different understanding, based on the Vulgate: “For I am sure that my redeeemer liveth, and that I shal rise out of the earth in the latter day, and shal be covered againe with my skinne, and shall see God in my flesh” (Bishops’; Coverdale is almost exactly the same). The Septuagint, though, is rather obscure: “For I know that everlasting is the one who is going to release me on earth, to raise my skin which is enduring these things; for from God these things were established for me.” Obviously there were some tricky problems here: just how should the Hebrew be understood, and what did it mean? In the end, I think that the KJV/Geneva solution is a good one, and a reasonable representation of the Hebrew. But again, what the verses appear to be talking about in their own context is something different from the general resurrection at the end of time. Job has been struck with a dreadful skin disease as part of his sufferings which makes him quite repulsive to everyone, and he bemoans this in the verses preceding 25-26. But then he makes this affirmation of faith that despite the disease that has eaten his flesh and presumably made him unfit to be in the presence of God, ultimately he will be vindicated by God and be able once more to stand in his presence in this life. The point is that there is no mention of worms in the Hebrew; that is an addition to try and make sense of the rather clipped and abbreviated phraseology, and of course any such interpretative additions inevitably depend upon the direction from which the interpreter approaches the passage. If the passage is seen in a Christian context as a declaration of eschatological hope, the additions will reflect that. Hence, once again, the material in Messiah as taken from the KJV is giving a message about the interpretation of Job 19:25-26 that is not altogether justifiable on the basis of the OT Hebrew. But, together with the burial service, it has immortalized that interpretation.

Now I can imagine that all of this might sound rather negative, or disconcerting to some people. But let me assure you, the point of highlighting all of these different possible interpretations isn’t just because I’m a bit of a killjoy or because I want to undermine anyone‟s appreciation of Messiah. On the contrary: Messiah is an amazingly beautiful and profound work both musically and verbally, and highlighting some of the strategies by which it has been put together is a way of enabling an even greater appreciation of it. No, what I find fascinating is that the sacred texts of the Bible are often much richer than we understand them to be, and that simply to read everything as if it’s a prophecy of Jesus is to short-change ourselves and the text. It’s also the case that many of the OT passages that are taken to refer to the Messiah don’t explicitly mention him – the Haggai 2 quotation, for example – and it’s only by looking at them in a particular way with a particular agenda that we can see them as “messianic”. And for some passages, such as Ps 68:11 with its talk of “preachers” – or is it celebrating women? – we need to make sure we know what the text says in its original language before we can start making assertions about its messianic nature. But when all’s said and done, what a piece like Messiah and the kind of interpretations it uses does testify to is a sense that the OT and NT belong together; that you can’t just have the NT without the OT and hope to understand the claims about Jesus without a proper background; and that what occurs in Jesus is a continuation of what was begun among the people of Israel. Some  see  that  continuation  in  very  definite terms, as being clearly evident; others (of whom I would confess to be one) see it working in more subtle ways. But the point is, that whether Job was really anticipating the final eschatological resurrection or not, his hope was firmly in the God who alone could vindicate him; and his conviction is the same as that which drove the translators of the KJV and Charles Jennens in his compilation of Messiah, and continues to motivate Christians today: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Endnotes (supplied by the editor)

1 See John Roberts, “False Messiah,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 63 n1 (Spring 2010): 45-97, where Roberts addresses, among other things, a claim that Handel’s Messiah could be interpreted as “anti-Jewish.”

2 For further reading, see Ruth Smith, Handel’s Oratorios and Eighteenth-Century Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

3 Jennens (1700-1773) was first attracted to Handel’s music as early as 1725. He was librettist for Handel’s oratorios Saul and Belshazzar, and, in addition to compiling the libretto for Messiah, probably did so for Israel in Egypt as well. He owned a fortepiano and helped secure a harpsichord from Italy and an organ made to Handel’s specifications.

4 Geoffrey Cuming, “The Text of ‘Messiah’,” Music and Letters XXXI n3 (1950): 226-230.





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