BRIMSTONE, formerly the common vernacular name for sulphur (cf. KJV and NEB Rev 9:17); now chiefly used when referring to its inflammable character. Sulphur is a non-metallic element with a yellow color and commonly found as well-formed crystals. It is soft, melts at 113oC and burns with a blue flame with the formation of noxious, suffocating sulphur dioxide gas. There are three main geological environments: (1) in the cap rock of salt domes, e.g. the Gulf Coast region of USA, (2) in sedimentary beds, e.g. S central Sicily and (3) in regions of volcanic activity, e.g. Japan, where it is found in craters and crevices of extinct volcanoes, having been deposited by gasses of volcanic origin in the fumarolic stage of decadent vulcanism. Such a volcanic environment existed in recent geological times near Lake Tiberias, and in Syria, where Mount Hebron was a prominent volcano, and a thick pile of plateau basalt lavas form the Hauran Plain. Radiocarbon analysis of carbonized organic matter indicates that one of the youngest basalt flows is only 4,000 years old, i.e. must have occurred during human occupation of the region. This existence of volcanic phenomena prob. led to the passing down of ideas such as “the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone” (Rev 21:8—“sulphurous flames” NEB) and “like a stream of brimstone” (Isa 30:33). The term may have been used loosely in connection with ideas based on explosive volcanic phenomena (“rain...fire and brimstone”—Ps 11:6). It may also have been used in relation to other catastrophic events such as landslips and earthquakes; this may explain the background of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19:24).
C. M. Riley, Our Mineral Resources (1959), 276-282; E. M. Blaiklock (ed.), The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Atlas (1969), 4, 5, 438-452.
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)
brim’-ston, brim’-stun (gophrith; to theion): The word translated "brimstone" probably referred originally to the pitch of trees, like the cypress. By analogy it has been rendered "brimstone" because of the inflammability of both substances. Sulphur existed in Palestine in early times and was known by most of the ancient nations as a combustible substance. In the vicinity of the Dead Sea, even at the present time, deposits of sulphur are being formed. Blanckenhorn (ZDPV, 1896) believes that this formation is due to the action of bituminous matter upon gypsum, as these two substances are found associated with each other in this district. Travelers going from Jericho to the Dead Sea may pick up lumps of sulphur, which are usually encrusted with crystals of gypsum. De 29:23 well describes the present aspect of this region. That the inhabitants of the land had experienced the terrors of burning sulphur is very probable. Once one of these deposits took fire it would melt and run in burning streams down the ravines spreading everywhere suffocating fumes such as come from the ordinary brimstone match. No more realistic figure could be chosen to depict terrible suffering and destruction. It is not at all unlikely that during some of the disastrous earthquakes which took place in this part of the world, the hot lava sent forth ignited not only the sulphur, but also the bitumen, and added to the horrors of the earthquake the destruction caused by burning pitch and brimstone.
The figurative use of the word brimstone to denote punishment and destruction is illustrated by such passages as De 29:23; Job 18:15; Ps 11:6; Isa 30:33; Eze 38:22; Lu 17:29; Re 9:17.
James A. Patch