Travail is unique in every respect. For one, as any woman who has experienced it can testify, travail is dreaded due to its pain and uncertainty, but also anticipated with hope due to its purpose, to give birth. Fear takes hold on a woman in travail (Ps. 48:6). “She has sorrow because her hour is come,” Jesus declared, “but as soon as she is delivered she remembers no more the anguish, for joy that a man is born into the world” ( John 16:21).
Travail is the main biblical term for childbirth. In Scripture a number of words in the original languages are translated travail. Individually each emphasizes a different aspect of travail, and collectively they give a more complete description of this mysterious, complex event. Some, like our word “labor,” accentuate the distressing, grueling toil and strength-sapping exertion it requires, which sometimes even takes the mother’s life, as it did for Rachel, “who travailed and had hard labor” with Benjamin (Gen. 35:16). Others stress the intense, stabbing waves of pain, or pangs, that overwhelm a woman in travail (Jer. 22:23). One word literally means to twist or writhe, and refers to the source of pain, the body-wrenching, increasingly-violent convulsions that clamp down vise-like within the mother in travail. Yet another word emphasizes that travail is a process of bearing a child that begins with conception and works inexorably toward its final goal, which is the birth of one’s own beloved flesh and blood ( John 16:21).
Although the travail of women is unique, Scripture uses the vivid term to refer to a number of spiritual realities. One of them is to represent the general toil of man his entire life upon the earth. “All his days are sorrows,” the wise man says, “and his travail grief. I have seen the travail which God hath given to the sons of men to be exercised in it” (Eccl. 2:23; 3:10). Another reality pictured as travail is rather surprising, the sinfulness of man. The wicked, with whom God is angry every day, travails in iniquity, giving birth to falsehood conceived in the womb of his mind (Ps. 7:14). He travails in pain all his days (Job 15:20), which God gives him to gather and heap up, while, ironically, his riches perish by evil travail (Eccl. 2:26; 5:14). And as the severe, inevitable judgments of God, pangs and sorrows take hold on him as a woman in travail (Is. 13:8).
A more glorious application in Scripture of the word travail is to the church. First, from the perspective of its salvation. Israel under bondage in Egypt was in travail, being vexed with pains and sorrows, waiting to be delivered (Ex. 18:8; Num. 20:15). When taken captive to Babylon, she went as a woman in travail to be redeemed from her enemies (Mic. 4:10). Secondly, the church travailed to give birth to the Christ as her own flesh and by whom she is delivered. The church is a glorious woman, clothed with the sun, the moon under her feet, and crowned with twelve stars, who throughout the Old Testament was travailing in birth and pained to be delivered of the Christ-child conceived in her womb by the mother-promise (Rev. 12:2). How fitting, then, that when this child is born His work requires the travail of His own soul (Is. 53:11), and that in His death He is compassed about with travail (Is. 53:11).
Christ is now returning from heaven by means of travail. The process has begun. Certainly, inexorably, with great fear, pain, and sorrow, yet even greater anticipation and hope, He comes. He is being formed spiritually within the womb of our hearts (Gal. 4:19) through His ambassadors, who labor night and day in travail preaching the gospel (I Thess. 2:9, 3:8). Thus He commands, “Be in pain and labor to bring forth, O daughter of Zion, like a woman in travail” (Mic. 4:10). And He comes bodily. He is coming even through the travail of the creation. Fearful, for this travail brings destruction on the unrepentant that they shall not escape, though claiming peace and safety (I Thess. 5:3). But the church anticipates it with hope. The creation shares in this hope. The brute creation, which was made subject to vanity, has earnest expectation because it shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. So relentlessly, painfully, with wrenching, increasingly intense, powerful convulsions within, the whole creation groans in travail until now (Rom. 8:19-22). Do you hear it? With travail He comes.