Travail is hard work, especially work that causes pain or requires an extra amount of exertion. Travail is often used in the Bible, in translations such as the King James Version, the English Revised Version, and the American Standard Version, to refer to the toil and pain a woman experiences in giving birth (e.g., Genesis 38:27; Psalm 48:6; Jeremiah 22:23; John 16:21; 1 Thessalonians 5:3). Other translations use words such as toil, labor, anguish, or labor pains rather than travail.
Beyond its physical meaning, travail can also have psychological implications, as in “the travail of the soul.” Isaiah 53:11 (KJV) uses the word travail in reference to the agony of soul the Messiah would suffer when He bore the sins of the world. Jesus’ travail is evident in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before His arrest: “Being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Luke 22:44).
Paul expressed spiritual and emotional travail when he wrote to the Galatians, “My children, of whom I travail again until that Christ shall have been formed in you, I was wishing indeed to be present with you presently and to change my tone, because I am perplexed as to you” (Galatians 4:19–20, BLB). Paul also spoke of his “labor and travail” in describing the hard work he did to pay his own expenses and not be a financial burden on anyone (2 Thessalonians 3:8, NHEB).
The psalmist pictures the wicked person as travailing to bring forth evil: “Behold, he travaileth with iniquity, and hath conceived mischief, and brought forth falsehood” (Psalm 7:14, KJV). All of the hard work and planning of the wicked will go for naught, however: “The trouble they cause recoils on them; their violence comes down on their own heads” (verse 16).
When we pray fervently for something or someone, we are “travailing” in prayer (James 5:16). It can be agonizing work to intercede for those in crisis, pray for the lost, or seek direction on critical decisions. God honors those who travail in prayer, as evidenced by His response to Daniel’s three weeks of seeking His answers (Daniel 10:1–14).
Travail, both physical and emotional, is part of living in this fallen world (Ecclesiastes 2:23). In fact, all of God’s creation suffers under the curse: “We know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now” (Romans 8:22, KJV). But Jesus left us with this encouragement in John 16:33: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”