Revelation 8:10-11 The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— 11 the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter.
The third trumpet resembles the plague of the freshwater in Exodus 7:20, the Nile turned to blood. That this is a “great star” with a specific name is important. Enoch describes fallen angels as “seven stars of heaven. . . like great mountains and burning with fire” (1 Enoch 21:3). It is therefore likely the image of a star falling from heaven refers to some kind of spiritual being.
Unlike Disney-saturated western world, “shooting stars” were signs of good luck. A falling star was bad luck and a comet was even worse. “…comets were considered prodigies that signaled the imminence of death and disaster (Manilius Astron. 1.892-926; cited by Aune 2:520). Anyone reading these verses in the first century would understand this as a “bad sign.”
The star is named Wormwood (ὁ Ἄψινθος, apsinth). Wormwood is a non-poisonous bitter-tasting herb (Artemisia absinthium) that makes the fresh water undrinkable. Tarragon and sage belong to the same family. Of the several varieties of Wormwood known in the ancient world, the one that grown in the Galatian mountains was so strong that “a single ounce diluted in 524 gallons of water can still be tasted” (Aune 2:520). The first century physician Dioscorides says Wormwood “is good, taken as a drink with seseli or celtic nardus for gaseousness and pains in the intestines and stomach. Three cups of a dilution or decoction of it (taken every day) heals lack of appetite and jaundice.” In German, Wormwood in Wermut, related to the English vermouth.
Falling stars appear in apocalyptic literature frequently. In the fifth Sibylline Oracle a great star comes from heaven and burns up the seas, in Sib. Or. 8.190–193 all the stars fall into the sea. In contrast to the third trumpet, however, in these examples all the sea is destroyed rather than one-third and there is no reference to people drinking the bitter waters.
Sib. Or. 5.155–161 But when after the fourth year a great star shines which alone will destroy the whole earth, because of the honor which they first gave to Poseidon of the sea, a great star will come from heaven to the wondrous sea and will burn the deep sea and Babylon itself 160 and the land of Italy, because of which many holy faithful Hebrews and a true people perished.
Sib. Or. 2.202–205 For all the stars will fall together from heaven on the sea. All the souls of men will gnash their teeth, burning in a river, and brimstone and a rush of fire in a fiery plain, and ashes will cover all.
Sib. Or. 8.190–193 All the stars will fall directly into the sea, all in turn, and men will call a shining comet “the star,” a sign of much impending toil, war, and slaughter.
The Hebrew word translated bitterness or wormwood (לַעֲנָה, laʿănâ) several times in the Septuagint. Because Israel has sinned against the Lord, he has “doomed us to perish and has given us poisoned water to drink” (Jer 8:14); because they have forsaken the Law, the Lord says he will “I will feed this people with bitter food, and give them poisonous water to drink” (Jer 9:15; 23:15).
Readers miss the point of third trumpet by focusing on the effects of a literal comet or meteorite hitting the earth. Along with these three examples in Jeremiah of the Lord giving Israel bitter or poisoned water to drink as a sign they are under God’s judgment, consider also Jeremiah 25:15-16:
Jeremiah 25:15-16 Thus the LORD, the God of Israel, said to me: “Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath, and make all the nations to whom I send you drink it. 16 They shall drink and stagger and be crazed because of the sword that I am sending among them.”
The prophet is told to make the nations drink the cup of God’s wrath. Following this command, verses 18-26 list many nations, concluding with Babylon. The rest of the chapter describes the Lord’s judgment on the whole earth: “I am summoning a sword against all the inhabitants of the earth” (25:29). Verse 33 summarizes: “a great tempest is stirring from the farthest parts of the earth.” Just as in Jeremiah’s day, John describes a judgment on the world in which the Lord makes the whole world drink bitter water as a sign of their guilt.