Richard C. Trench on the Meaning of "Tribulation"

The paragraphs below are excerpted from Richard Chevenix Trench's On the Study of Words: Lectures Addressed (Originally) to the Pupils at The Diocesan Training-school, Winchester, sixth edition (London: John W. Parker and Sons, 1855), pp. 8-10. In this book, Trench sets out to show what rich meanings are often contained in words that are commony used in the Christian Church. A single word is in many cases designed to communicate a profound truth, and it does communicate it if we make ourselves aware of the word's history. In his "Introductory Lecture" Trench offers the following example:

Richard Chevenix Trench"Let me illustrate my meaning somewhat more at length by the word 'tribulation.' We all know in a general way that this word, which occurs not seldom in Scripture and in the Liturgy, means affliction, sorrow, anguish; but it is quite worth our while to know how it means this, and to question the word a little closer. It is derived from the Latin 'tribulum,' which was the threshing instrument, or roller, whereby the Roman husbandmen separated the corn from the husks; and 'tribulatio' in its primary signification was the act of this separation. But some Latin writer of the Christian Church appropriated the word and image for the setting forth of a higher truth; and sorrow, distress, and adversity being the appointed means for the separating in men of whatever in them was light, trivial, and poor from the solid and the true, their chaff from their wheat, therefore he called these sorrows and trials 'tribulations,' threshings, that is, of the inner spiritual man, without which there could be no fitting him for the heavenly garner. Now in proof of my assertion that a single word is often a concentrated poem, a little grain of gold capable of being beaten out into a broad extent of gold-leaf, I will quote, in reference to this very word 'tribulation,' a graceful composition by George Wither, an early English poet, which you will at once perceive is all wrapped up in this word, being from first to last only the expanding of the image and thought which this word has implicitly given; these are his lines:

'Till from the straw, the flail, the corn doth beat,
Until the chaff be purged from the wheat,
Yea, till the mill the grains in pieces tear,
The richness of the flour will scarce appear.
So, till men's persons great afflictions touch,
If worth be found, their worth is not so much,
Because, like wheat in straw, they have not yet
That value which in threshing they may get.
For till the bruising flails of God's corrections
Have threshed out of us our vain affections;
Till those corruptions which do misbecome us
Are by Thy sacred Spirit winnowed from us;
Until from us the straw of worldly treasures,
Till all the dusty chaff of empty pleasures,
Yea, till His flail upon us He doth lay,
To thresh the husk of this our flesh away;
And leave the soul uncovered; nay, yet more,
Till God shall make our very spirit poor,
We shall not up to highest wealth aspire;
But then we shall; and that is my desire.'

"This deeper religious use of the word 'tribulation' was unknown to classical, that is to heathen, antiquity, and belongs exclusively to the Christian writers; and the fact that the same deepening and elevating of the use of words recurs in a multitude of other, and many of them far more striking, instances, is one well deserving to be followed up. Nothing, I am persuaded, would more strongly bring before us what a new power Christianity was in the world than to compare the meaning which so many words possessed before its rise, and the deeper meaning which they obtained, so soon as they were assumed by it as the vehicles of its life, the new thought and feeling enlarging, purifying, and ennobling the very words which they employed."