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)
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).
This is the third of the first four trumpet judgments that affect natural objects, in this case fresh water, resulting in the death of many. The final three trumpet judgments, which we will address in later lessons, affect men’s lives with pain, death and hell.
In this judgment, John sees “a great star, blazing like a torch,” falling from heaven and striking a third of the rivers and springs of water. This star is called Wormwood, which means absinthe, a bitter herb, and many die from drinking the water.
Is this “star” an object from outer space – a meteorite, perhaps? Is it an angel or demon? A world leader? When John says it falls from heaven, does He mean from the throne of God or the stellar sphere? Why does it fall on a third of the fresh water? And are these all the waters of the earth, or just in Israel and the surrounding lands? Why does this star have a name? And how can a bitter herb kill so many people? Let’s dig a little deeper and see what we can learn.
The third angel blew his trumpet
As a reminder, the “trumpet” each angel blows in this series of judgments is the shofar, or ram’s horn, and has special significance for Israel (see The first trumpet for more details). In this case, the sound of the shofar announces the commencement of judgment. Following each trumpet blast, we are introduced to the instrument of God’s judgment: hail and fire, mixed with blood (the first judgment); something like a great mountain ablaze with fire (the second judgment); a great star, blazing like a torch (the third judgment); a third of the sun, moon and stars struck (the fourth judgment); a star with the key to the abyss (the fifth judgment); the release of four bound angels at the Euphrates River (the sixth judgment); and loud voices in heaven and an opening of God’s sanctuary (the seventh trumpet).
The sound of the shofar alerts us that God is moving righteously in judgment, extending His mercy a little while longer for those who will repent, destroying the wicked, rewarding His people, and preparing the created order for new heavens and a new earth.
Christians in particular should joyfully anticipate the sounding of the trumpet that heralds our physical resurrection and glorification – the “last trumpet” of 1 Cor. 15:52 and “the trumpet of God” in 1 Thess. 4:16.
Next: A great star fell from heaven (Rev. 8:10-11)