Wormwood (Revelation 8): An OT-based Judgment Upon Unfaithful Israel

Series: “Little Gems from Our Study of the Book of Revelation”

The following study was published yesterday in The Fulfilled Connection (TFC) Magazine, and was adapted from our study of Revelation 8:

Then the third angel sounded: And a great star fell from heaven, burning like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water. The name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the water, because it was made bitter” (Revelation 8:10-11).

Revelation 8 covers the first four out of seven trumpet judgments, poured out in response to the prayers of the saints (vs. 4; cf. Rev. 6:10). The first trumpet involved the burning up of a third of the trees and all of the grass (vs. 7), and the second trumpet involved a third of the sea turning to blood and the death of a third of the living creatures in the sea (vss. 8-9).  

Rev. 8:10-11, quoted above, details the third trumpet and speaks of a “great star” falling from heaven, “burning like a torch,” causing many deaths as a third of the rivers and springs of water become wormwood (bitter). As Steve Gregg, the author of Revelation: Four Views (A Parallel Commentary) points out, some futurists interpret this trumpet judgment symbolically, as referring either to a future Antichrist (e.g. Arno Gaebelein) or a future Pope (e.g. H.A. Ironside) who causes much corruption (Gregg, pp. 161, 163). Other futurist interpreters (e.g. Henry Morris, Charles Ryrie, John Walvoord) see this as a literal reference to a burning meteorite or “a giant set of meteors” that will enter earth’s atmosphere “with contaminating influence upon the rivers and waters” of the entire planet (p. 165). Steve Gregg’s articulation of the Preterist (fulfilled) interpretation reflects my own understanding:

The turning of fresh water sources bitter and toxic may be in part a literal result of the decaying corpses that lay in the Sea of Galilee and in the river as the result of war [i.e. the Roman-Jewish War of 67-73 AD]. However, this fouling of the waters has symbolic significance, occurring as it does here to the nation of Israel. There is probably an intentional allusion to the promise (and implied threat) God made to Israel when they first came out of Egypt. When they came to the bitter waters of Marah, in response to Moses’ casting a tree into the waters, God made the waters sweet and wholesome… However, God’s promise/warning implies that their disobedience to Him will result in His placing upon them the same plagues that He placed on the Egyptians—the waters can be made bitter again [cf. Exodus 15:25-26, Deuteronomy 28:59-60]… It is noteworthy that throughout the pages of Revelation, the plagues that come upon the apostates are comparable to those with which God afflicted the Egyptians in the days of Moses [See the end of this article for a list of more of these parallels]. The star which was burning like a torch (v. 10) is reminiscent of the tree cast into the waters by Moses, but has the opposite effect (pp. 160, 162).

Gregg also quotes from David Chilton, who adds,

The name of this fallen star is Wormwood, a term used in the Law and the Prophets to warn Israel of its destruction as a punishment for apostasy (Deut. 29:18; Jer. 9:15; 23:15Lam. 3:15, 19; Amos 5:7). Again, by combining these Old Testament allusions, St. John makes his point: Israel is apostate, and has become an Egypt; Jerusalem has become a Babylon; and the covenant-breakers will be destroyed, as surely as Egypt and Babylon were destroyed (Gregg, p. 164).

To further illustrate this point, it’s also instructive to consider the test for adultery under the Law of Moses, as recorded in Numbers 5:11-31. This test was to be administered by a priest in cases where a married woman was suspected of defiling herself in an adulterous manner (Numbers 5:11-14). The priest would mix dust from the floor of the tabernacle into holy water contained in a vessel, to create “the water of bitterness that brings the curse” (vss. 16-18). The woman would then take the following oath:

If no man has lain with you, and if you have not turned aside to uncleanness while you were under your husband’s authority, be free from this water of bitterness that brings the curse. But if you have gone astray, though you are under your husband’s authority, and if you have defiled yourself, and some man other than your husband has lain with you, then (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) the Lord make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the Lord makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. May this water that brings the curse pass into your bowels and make your womb swell and your thigh fall away (vss. 20-22).

The woman would then say, “Amen. Amen,” and the curses would be written into a book and washed off into the bitter water. The woman would then be made to drink the water (vss. 23-26), with the following possible results:

And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children (vss. 27-28).

If this imagery and this procedure is the background of the third trumpet judgment, then this is one more indication that Israel had been found to be apostate. Many people died from the bitter water because they were indeed guilty of spiritual adultery, and were found to be in a state of defilement.

Sam Storms shares some interesting thoughts as well regarding how Revelation parallels the plagues which came upon Egypt, the enemy of God’s people at the time:

One of the fascinating things in Revelation is the way it portrays the experience of the people of God in terms very similar to what transpired for Israel in Egypt and the ten plagues of judgment. For example,

1) prominence of the Red Sea (Ex. 14:1-31) // 1) prominence of glassy sea (Rev. 15:2)
2) song of deliverance (Ex. 15:1-18) // 2) song of deliverance (Rev. 15:2-4)
3) God’s enemy: Pharaoh // 3) God’s enemy: the Beast
4) court magicians of Egypt // 4) the False Prophet
5) persecution of Israel // 5) persecution of the Church
6) protected from plagues (Ex. 8:22; 9:4,26; 10:23; 11:7) // 6) protected from wrath (Rev. 7:1-8; 9:4)
7) hardened/unrepentant (Ex. 8:15; 9:12-16) // 7) hardened/unrepentant (Rev. 16:9,11,21)
8] the name of God (Ex. 3:14) // 8] the name of God (Rev. 1:4-6)
9) Israel redeemed from bondage by blood // 9) Church redeemed from sin by blood
10) Israel made a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6) // 10) Church made a kingdom of priests (Rev. 1:6)
11) 7th plague (Ex. 9:22-25) // 11) 1st trumpet [Rev. 8:7]
12) 6th plague (Ex. 9:8-12) // 12) 1st bowl [Rev. 16:2]
13) 1st plague (Ex. 7:20-25) // 13) 2nd/3rd trumpet & 2nd/3rd bowl [Rev. 8:8-11, 16:3-7]

14) 9th plague (Ex. 10:21-23) // 14) 4th trumpet & 4th bowl [Rev. 8:12-13, 16:8-9]
15) 8th & 9th plagues (Ex. 10:1-20) // 15) 5th trumpet & 5th bowl [Rev. 9:1-12, 16:10-11]

Jesus so often described His generation in Israel as “adulterous”, “evil”, “wicked”, “vile,” etc. He predicted that they would be held to account and judged for shedding the blood of the prophets and saints (Matthew 23:29-38). The book of Revelation was written concerning “things which must shortly take place,” for “the time [was] near” (Rev. 1:1-3; 22:6, 10, 12). John saw the great city, where Jesus was crucified (Rev. 11:8) as an adulterous woman (a “harlot”), ripe for judgment because she was full of the blood of the prophets, apostles, and saints (see my studies on Rev. 16:4-6, 17:1-6, and 18:20-24).

First century Israel was full of adultery, and guilty of shedding much innocent blood. The terms of Israel’s law code, which was about to go up in flames with Jerusalem and the temple, called for “the water of bitterness that brings the curse” (Numbers 5:20). And Israel’s water was poisoned with bitterness, Wormwood, in her final hour before destruction came. Thank God that He had already prepared a bride, clothed in fine linen and adorned for Himself, her husband (Rev. 19:1-9, 21:1-3).


All of our studies on the book of Revelation can be seen here.