Rev. 8:10 – 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).
A great star fell from heaven
John writes that “a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from heaven.” This star is given the name Wormwood, meaning absinthe, a bitter herb. The word “star” appears 73 times in 69 verses in the Bible (HCSB). Generally, it refers to any luminous heavenly body other than the sun and moon. The vast number of stars speaks to God’s creative power and the magnitude of His blessing. For example, He tells Abram that his offspring will be as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5, 22:17, 26:4). Pre-Christian astronomers mapped about 3,000 stars, but scripture indicates a far greater number, confirmed by Galileo at the beginning of telescopic astronomy. Today, we know that our own galaxy, the Milky Way, sports more than 100 billion stars. It takes light 100,000 years to cross it. Billions of other galaxies have been observed, up to 10 billion light years away. The God who created them determines their number and calls them by name (Ps. 147:4).
Throughout human history there has been the temptation to worship the stars, but Yahweh, who is greater than the sum of all creation, calls on us to worship Him alone (Deut. 4:19; Jer. 7:18; Amos 5:26; Acts 7:43). Stars play a vital role as signs in God’s acts of redemption and judgment (Is. 13:10; Eze. 32:7; Dan. 8:10; Joel 2:10, 3:15; Matt. 24:29; Mark 13:25; Luke 21:25; Rev. 6:13, 8:10-12, 9:1).
The star heralding Jesus’ birth is mentioned in Matthew 2. Commentators generally offer three possible explanations: a major comet, a planetary conjunction, or a supernova. The Chinese recorded a tailed comet that was visible for 70 days in 5 B.C. A planetary conjunction occurs when two or more stars appear to stand close to one another, as Jupiter and Saturn did three times in 7 B.C.; the Magi could have seen this as a sign that a significant event was about to occur. A supernova occurs when a star explodes with astonishing brightness – perhaps a million times as bright as the sun – before fading into obscurity. These are rarely seen and would have been a stunning sign in the heavens. One other possible explanation is that the Lord created a special star just for the occasion of His Son’s birth.
“The word ‘star’ is also used metaphorically without astronomical reference, usually to imply dignity, either innate or usurped (Jb. 38:7; Dn. 12:3; Rev. 1:16, 20; 2:1; 3:1; 12:1; 22:16)” (D.R.W. Wood and I.H. Marshall, New Bible Dictionary, 3rd Edition, p. 1132).
But what, or who, is this “star” called Wormwood? The word, in the botanist’s language, is Artemisia absinthium, a plant with silvery, silky haired leaves and drooping yellow flowers, yielding a bitter, dark-green oil used in absinthe. The name the Greeks gave it, absinthion, means undrinkable. The word occurs nine times in eight verses in the Bible (HCSB). In Prov. 5:3-4, Solomon warns his son against the lure of the forbidden woman: Though her “lips drip honey and her words are smoother than oil, in the end she’s as bitter as wormwood, and as sharp as a double-edged sword.” In Jer. 9:15, the God of Israel tells idolatrous Judah, “I am about to feed this people wormwood and give them poisonous water to drink.” A similar declaration is made to the prophets in Jer. 23:15.
The author of Lamentations uses “wormwood” twice to describe his affliction at the hand of God (3:15, 19). In Amos the Lord rebukes those who “turn justice into wormwood” (5:7) and “the fruit of righteousness into wormwood” (6:12); some translators in this verse render it “hemlock.” No doubt the word is used to describe bitterness, affliction, remorse or punitive suffering.
So when we get to Rev. 8:11, where the word is used twice, it seems clear that God is sending this bitterness as judgment against those who stubbornly rebel against Him, cling to their idols and persecute the saints. Still, is wormwood the name of a celestial body, or perhaps a meteorite, or an angelic creature?
“Some take this to be a political star, some eminent governor, and they apply it to Augustulus, who was forced to resign the empire to Odoacer, in the year 480. Others take it to be an ecclesiastical star, some eminent person in the church, compared to a burning lamp, and they fix it upon Pelagius, who proved about this time a falling star, and greatly corrupted the churches of Christ” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, Rev. 8:7-13).
Commentators also compare the star to heretics like Arius, a church leader in Alexandria who denies the deity of Christ and becomes the focus of attention at the First Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. Emperor Constantine orders the burning of his writings while Arius is yet alive. Still other interpreters see this star as some future Christian leader who poisons the church with false doctrines, resulting in a widespread dearth of spiritual life.
In any case, if Wormwood is a false teacher in the church, he or she turns life-giving spiritual springs into deadly Marahs (see Ex. 15:23). Some argue that the cross of Christ is the fulfillment of the sweetening wood at Marah. Just as Yahweh gives Moses the wood and it absorbs all the bitterness of Marah, the Lord also gives His Son who takes upon Himself the sin of the world, resulting in living water for all who trust in Him. Perhaps Wormwood is a false teacher, or even a false Messiah, who deceives many into believing they can quench their spiritual thirst with waters from the Dead Sea.
Interestingly, just as Moses tosses a piece of wood into the water at Marah to make it drinkable, the wormwood of Revelation 8 makes the sweet waters bitter. This is why some scholars say we should read Rev. 8:10-11 literally, for just as Moses and the people deal with real water in Exodus, so the people suffering under the third trumpet must be experiencing a similar physical thirst.
Next: It fell on a third (Rev. 8:10-11)