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
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)