Rev. 8:10-11 – The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from heaven. It fell on a third of the rivers and springs of water. 11The name of the star is Wormwood, and a third of the waters became wormwood. So, many of the people died from the waters, because they had been made bitter (HCSB).
It fell on a third
John records that the star Wormwood falls on a third of the rivers and springs of water, causing a third of the waters to become bitter. Scholars are divided as to whether the fractions used in Revelation are to be interpreted literally or figuratively. Making all of the fractions in these judgments add up is a daunting challenge and may not be necessary, according to those who argue that terms such as “a third” simply are literary or rabbinical devices to mean some portion but not the whole. Why, then, doesn’t John just avoid fractions altogether? More to the point, why doesn’t the Author of scripture, the Holy Spirit, be more explicit?
Those who read Revelation literally argue that the fractions are indeed explicit. One-third means one-third. Others, however, remind us that Revelation is apocalyptic, a form of writing that is figurative by design. In any case, it’s interesting to note that the first four trumpet judgments impact one-third of the environment: a third of the earth, a third of the trees, a third of the sea, a third of the living creatures in the sea, a third of the rivers and springs of water, and a third of the sun, moon and stars; the only exception is “all of the green grass” in the first trumpet judgment. Whether the term “a third” is to be taken literally or figuratively, it no doubt means a substantial portion but not all. The Lord is speaking clearly in these judgments, but also is extending His mercy to any who will repent.
In this third trumpet judgment, the star falls on a third of the rivers and springs of water so they become undrinkable. If this is to be taken literally, consider the impact: “The National Geographic Society lists about 100 principal rivers in the world, ranging in length from the Amazon (4,000 miles long) to the Rio de la Plata (150 miles long). The U.S. Geological Survey reports thirty large rivers in the United States, beginning with the mighty Mississippi (3,710 miles long). One third of these rivers, and their sources, will become so bitterly polluted that drinking their water could produce death” (Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Rev. 8:7).
If we read this judgment figuratively – in other words, that it applies to society in general or to the church – Matthew Henry provides this insight: “What effect it [the false ideals of leaders] had upon them [the populace or the church]; it turned those springs and streams into wormwood, made them very bitter, that men were poisoned by them; either the laws, which are springs of civil liberty, and property, and safety, were poisoned by arbitrary power, or the doctrines of the gospel, the springs of spiritual life, refreshment, and vigour to the souls of men, were so corrupted and embittered by a mixture of dangerous errors that the souls of men found their ruin where they sought for their refreshment” (Rev. 8:7-13).
David Stern, in the Jewish New Testament Commentary, offers this balanced approach to the judgments in Revelation: “If these verses in Revelation are to be understood literally, then, since God uses nature to accomplish his purposes, one can imagine asteroids plunging into the earth, other materials from outer space darkening the skies and infecting the water, and heat flashes setting fire to the vegetation; and one can seek scientific explanations for such phenomena. But if these are graphic but figurative ways of describing God’s judgment and the terror it will evoke, such speculations and researches are irrelevant. There are intelligent, well-informed God-fearing New Testament scholars taking each approach” (p. 815).
So many of the people died
But how may we accept a figurative approach to this judgment when John writes plainly that “many of the people died from the waters, because they had been made bitter” (v. 11)? No doubt, a literal rendering of this passage makes sense; if a third of the world’s fresh water supply is poisoned, a large number of people who rely on that water to sustain life will drink it and die.
If, however, one approaches these verses symbolically, death may be seen in a number of ways. For example, corrupt political leaders often kill their rivals, enslave their people and wage war against their enemies, so that people, societies, and basic human rights are destroyed. Or consider that false teachers in the church, as agents of Satan, demolish sound doctrine, resulting in spiritual death for those kept from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4). At the same time, false teachers may stunt the spiritual growth of believers as they exploit them with “the teachings of demons” (1 Tim. 4:1). As a result, the faith of many withers; local churches die; once-universally held truths – like the virgin birth of Jesus, His deity, and His physical resurrection – become powerless myths and legends.
Physical death is tragic, but other deaths may be far worse.
Four major views of the third trumpet
How do supporters of the four major interpretations of Revelation view the third trumpet?
- Preterists – who see the events of Revelation as fulfilled in the first centuries of the church age – say the turning of fresh water into undrinkable water may be the result of rotting corpses in the Sea of Galilee during the Jewish War of 66-70 A.D. Others, however, see parallels between the imagery John uses and the implied threat God makes to ancient Israel after delivering the nation from Egyptian bondage. Just as the healing of bitter waters at Marah are symbolic of the deliverance of God’s people from slavery in Egypt, the Lord warns the Israelites that if they violate their covenant with God they are to expect plagues similar to those used to crush Egypt (Deut. 28:59-60). By combining these Old Testament allusions, John may be pointing out the fact that Israel is apostate and has become like Egypt. As a result, the nation will be destroyed.
- Historicists – who view the events of Revelation as unfolding throughout the course of history – tend to view the “great star” as Attilla the Hun, who emerges as suddenly as a blazing meteor. He and his 800,000 men decimate the regions of the Rhine, upper Danube and Po Rivers. In the Italian Alps, they shed so much blood as to pollute the waters that have their springs there, according to Steve Gregg in Revelation: Four Views (p. 160). By some estimates, 300,000 corpses lay in the rivers so that those who drink from the putrid waters contract diseases and die.
- Futurists – who argue that the events of Revelation are largely unfulfilled, especially chapters 4-22 – are divided. Some hold to a literal understanding in which a blazing heavenly object pollutes much of the world’s drinking water, while others contend that John is referring to some future leader – perhaps the pope, or the Antichrist, or even Satan.
- Some idealists, or spiritualists – who see Revelation setting forth timeless truths concerning the battle between good and evil – say John is referring to all the ways in which God uses the inland waters, including floods and water-borne epidemics, to warn sinners to repent. Others say that perhaps the waters symbolize the many ways people satisfy their needs, such as industry and commerce; if so, then the blazing star is God’s way of disrupting man’s efforts to rule his own destiny. The turning of pure waters bitter perhaps reflects the fact that God, in the Old Testament, refers to Himself as “the fountain of living waters” and rebukes His people with forsaking Him for idols, thus polluting their worship. When people prefer the putrid waters of idolatry to the fountain of living waters, they should expect to receive the consequences.
Next: The fourth trumpet – Revelation 8:12-13