Many Christians—and even churches—avoid studying the book of Revelation, often believing it to be too confusing, inapplicable or metaphorical. However, the individual who avoids this book unknowingly shortchanges themselves: Readers are told in the first few verses that those who read and truly hear this revelation will be blessed. Furthermore, believers are challenged in 1 Thessalonians 5 not to be found ignorant regarding these end-times events because we do not belong to the night or in darkness. Today, we will try to dissect one of the most mysterious judgments in Revelation: Wormwood.
In the final book of the Bible, the apostle John is well into a lengthy, colorful description of coming events. Elderly and exiled, John is an eyewitness as a series of seven seals on a vellum scroll are peeled back, one by one. Only the Lamb of God who was slain was deemed worthy to open these seals from what is obviously a very important document. Seal one through six have already been opened with dramatic and effective results. Revelation 8 starts by telling of a period of time—one half-hour—when heaven will be completely silent after the breaking of the seventh seal. Then, seven angels, appointed for this specific moment in time, prepare themselves to sound.
The third trumpet is accompanied by an ominous series of events in John’s vision: “The third angel sounded, and a great star from heaven, burning like a torch, fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of waters. The name of this star is Wormwood. A third of the waters became wormwood, and many men died from the waters, because they were made bitter” (Rev. 8:10-11).
While not everyone asserts that prophecy will be dealt specifically via an incoming comet or asteroid, admittedly, a casual English reading of the entire chapter of Revelation 8 certainly lends itself to such an interpretation. That said, there are other options regarding the meaning of this Wormwood and what its arrival may portend in this prophetic “trumpet” discussion.
Often, in our corporate church imagination, the prevailing narrative regarding the blowing of the trumpet spawns visions of a spiritual entity (angel) perched peacefully on a cloud awaiting his cue. When the time has arrived, he blows the third trumpet and watches, disengaged, from his cushy seat in the heavens while a giant rock splashes into the earth’s most important freshwater source.
But maybe, just maybe, there is an angel who is more involved than this cartoon version—and perhaps we’re not looking at an impact/collision event at all.
It would be easy to keep our collective sights only on “natural space activity” (however erratic) and forget another theory about Wormwood that may, according to some scholars like Michael S. Heiser, be the most obvious conclusion regarding these poisonous waters. Could Wormwood be a fallen angel?
The notion that trumpet three, Wormwood, would be an entity—especially with how many spiritual and demonic beings these judgments are increasingly producing around this time—will probably appear in that day to both Christ’s devoted ones and the Antichrist’s followers as a real possibility.
In this article, we will explore possible alternate explanations for Wormwood in order to prepare you for the end-times reality that could begin at any moment. But first, I should explain how to approach serious interpretation of Revelation and its mysterious prophecies.
When interpreting the Wormwood judgment, scholars arrive at many different conclusions—some easier to grasp than others. Some believe the “falling star” could actually mean a “falling angel,” and others suggest that the “bitterness” (poisoning) of wormwood actually means “famine” and has nothing to do with water. We’ll get to both of those theories in the next section. Nevertheless, both concepts demand that the question of literality in the interpretation of Revelation is at least visited briefly so readers can understand: 1) why the interpretations—even among scholars—vary so widely, and 2) why many of these theories are equally plausible.
There is a popular (and respectable) principle of biblical interpretation that many instructional books will teach as one of the first rules to follow when studying the Bible: “If a verse can be interpreted literally, it should be. The only occasion when a Scripture should not be taken literally is when doing so creates an absurdity.”
For instance, 2 Timothy 4:13 contains a clear, non-allegorical order for Timothy to bring Paul’s cloak and documents. To take 2 Timothy 4:13 as literal does not create an absurdity, because it’s not illogical or unreasonable in any way to assume Paul wanted Timothy to swing by with some supplies next time he was headed Paul’s way. However, John 3:3, taken to the fullest application of literality, means that a man must crawl through his mother’s womb again (be “born again”) before he can go to heaven. But as we know, even Nicodemus realized that a literal interpretation would create an absurdity, so he sought clarification, and Jesus further explained that this rebirth was “of … the Spirit” (John 3:4-6), leading us today to understand that this was a metaphor.
Therefore, to follow one of the most fundamental principles of biblical interpretation, “wormwood” would be a poisoning of fresh waters (not “famine”) and “Wormwood” would be a space-body mass object of some kind (not an “angel” or “fallen angel”). Assuming we’re dealing with asteroids and a poisoning, we have been able to conclude a literal interpretation that “does not create an absurdity.” This is perhaps why many scholars of the Word resist the allegorical or metaphorical approach to the book of Revelation any time we can see a logical, literal explanation for what’s coming.
Yet the very first rule of biblical interpretation, which must be acknowledged before any and all others in any serious approach to Scripture, is this: “There can only be one, true meaning of the verse in question, and that is the meaning that the author of that book intended for his original readers. No interpretation that disagrees with the author of the book (and, by extension, the Holy Spirit who led such a composition) can ever be the right one.”
The real issue lies in getting to the bottom of what that author meant, and not in deciding what we think makes the most sense to us today. That faulty approach is called eisegesis—”putting into Scripture what was never there”—which is the opposite of exegesis—”pulling out of Scripture what has been there from the beginning.” It’s also to commit the error of placing hermeneutics (what it means to us, today) ahead of exegesis (what it meant to them back then).
Yet this conundrum has never been bigger than when we get to Revelation, for the following reasons:
Unlike a didactic work or a historical narrative, John was documenting a future reality, not a past one, and the language of his vision often demands allowance for the same kind of prophetic imagery we have seen elsewhere in the Word, ripe with symbolism and metaphor, much like some of the messages given by the major prophets of the Old Testament.
Parts of Revelation can be interpreted literally without creating an absurdity, whereas other areas absolutely cannot.
As will be shown shortly, the original audience can and did recognize a language and imagery (“star” as “angel”) from first-century authors that is lost from mainstream Bible studies today. This unfortunately tends to leave the interpretation of a difficult book like Revelation only to those supremely educated scholars whose field of specialty (like Heiser and Gregory K. Beale) lies in comprehending the full and complete culture at the time of the original author’s penning. Since this is a minority, that means that an extreme minority of the church is sorting it all out, and the responsibility of comprehending “literal” versus “nonliteral” appears insurmountable for many.
Based on those points, we may be tempted to say all these trumpet judgments are symbols, and none of them are literal. If John intended to share his already overwhelming prophetic vision in language his contemporaries would understand—perhaps because what he saw was already so hard to put into words of any language—then we, too, should be willing to visit that possibility. It all boils down to context.
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