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Time, like an ever-rolling stream,

Bears all its sons away;

They fly forgotten, as a dream,

Dies at the opening day.

[Isaac Watts; Our God, Our Help in Ages Past]

What does the word "sons" refer to? I think he didn't simply mean that those sons were male children. Could you help me out?

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  • The above is dissimilar to the Hymnary.org wording which has Time like an ever rolling stream, soon bears us all away which makes sense. The above rendering makes no sense at all. . . . . .(Ending we fly, forgotten as a dream, dies at the op'ning day)
    – Nigel J
    Jul 25, 2022 at 20:04
  • 1
    @NigelJ One of the (slightly counterintuitive) principles of textual criticism that I learned in seminary: the harder reading is more likely to be the older reading. If somebody changed the text at some point, they probably would have made it more understandable, which means the less understandable version is probably the original. I find it delightful that this principle applies to hymns just as much as it does to biblical manuscripts!
    – DLosc
    Jul 26, 2022 at 2:11
  • @DLosc Some 'scholars' just do not understand inspiration. And I do not think Isaac Watts would have written such nonsense as time having sons. His abilities would have produced the more sensible version, in my view. Textual Criticism requires strict analysis of actual facts, not suppositional theories.
    – Nigel J
    Jul 26, 2022 at 4:20
  • @NigelJ I would call it poetry, not nonsense. :) In any case, without a source that is unambiguously Watts' original, we're left to make educated guesses. The closest I've found so far is this version on Hymnary.org, which says it's from "The Psalms of David: imitated in the language of the New Testament," with a publication date of 1740. Wikipedia says the hymn was originally published in a collection with that title--in 1719. So it's possible the 1740 edition had a change in wording...
    – DLosc
    Jul 26, 2022 at 5:48
  • 1
    ... However, the 1740 version does use the "sons" wording, and so does every text from the 1700s and 1800s that Hymnary.org lists. The earliest example of "soon bears us all away" that I found is from 1978. In the following decades, different versions start appearing all over the place: "bears all our years away," "will bear us all away," "bears all who breathe away," "bears all its years away," "bears all our lives away," "bears all of us away," "bears mortals all away."
    – DLosc
    Jul 26, 2022 at 5:49

2 Answers 2

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TL;DR: One possibility is that it just means "humans". Another (thanks, Paul!) is that it refers to divisions of time.

Longer answer:

Who is being borne away? If they are being borne away by time, presumably we are talking about mortals. Conceivably, Isaac could mean all mortals, but it seems safe to surmise that people (humans) are included.

I think he didn't simply mean that those sons were male children.

You are probably correct. Recall that "men" is historically a gender-inclusive term, meaning "people" or "humans". It seems likely that Isaac used only "sons" simply for poetic reasons, i.e. because a) he had two syllables in which to identify that which is borne away, and b) "kids" sounds atrocious in this context (and may not have developed the sense of "children" that it has today when he was writing).

It's worth considering, also, that other versions of this text are much less ambiguous:

Time, like an ever-rolling stream,
soon bears us all away;
we fly forgotten, as a dream
dies at the op’ning day.

So, in this version, it can be clearly seen that the hymn is just talking about people/humans.

On the other hand, this version no longer identifies that which is borne away as offspring of time. While that still works for (mortal) humans, Paul suggested in his answer that these "children" are perhaps not living things at all, but rather represent the concept of events or temporal intervals. In this case, the notion of "gender" doesn't really make sense, so at the least we can infer that "sons" is meant as a gender-inclusive, single syllable way of expressing "children" or "offspring".

Perhaps Isaac could have used "get", instead. I suspect the choice to use "sons" was aesthetic, and considered that his audience at the time would not have been so hung up as we are today on the idea that "sons" implies only males, rather than being seen as gender-inclusive.

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  • What a great answer! Thank you very much!
    – XVI
    Jul 26, 2022 at 3:07
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    Different published versions of the hymn have introduced a lot of different wordings since the 1970s, with a range of meaning that reflects your interpretation ("people... but maybe temporal intervals") remarkably closely: "soon bears us all away," "will bear us all away," "bears all of us away," "bears mortals all away," "bears all who breathe away," "bears all our lives away," "bears all our years away," and "bears all its years away" (the only one that doesn't mention humans at all).
    – DLosc
    Jul 26, 2022 at 6:04
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This article informs us that Watt's song was based on Psalm 90:

https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2015/01/03/time-like-an-ever-rolling-stream/

The original had three more verses that are seldom sung today, for nine in all. By aligning the verses with the Psalm, one can infer the meaning.

Here is the song in its entirety:

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast,
And our eternal home.

Under the shadow of Thy throne
Still may we dwell secure;
Sufficient is Thine arm alone,
And our defense is sure.

Before the hills in order stood,
Or earth received her frame,
From everlasting Thou art God,
To endless years the same.

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
Return, ye sons of men:
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

The busy tribes of flesh and blood,
With all their lives and cares,
Are carried downwards by the flood,
And lost in following years.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.

Our God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

Here is Psalm 90:

1 Lord, you have been our dwelling place
    throughout all generations.
2 Before the mountains were born
    or you brought forth the whole world,
    from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

3 You turn people back to dust,
    saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.”
4 A thousand years in your sight
    are like a day that has just gone by,
    or like a watch in the night.
5 Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—
    they are like the new grass of the morning:
6 In the morning it springs up new,
    but by evening it is dry and withered.

7 We are consumed by your anger
    and terrified by your indignation.
8 You have set our iniquities before you,
    our secret sins in the light of your presence.
9 All our days pass away under your wrath;
    we finish our years with a moan.
10 Our days may come to seventy years,
    or eighty, if our strength endures;
yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow,
    for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
11 If only we knew the power of your anger!
    Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due.
12 Teach us to number our days,
    that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

13 Relent, Lord! How long will it be?
    Have compassion on your servants.
14 Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love,
    that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days.
15 Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
    for as many years as we have seen trouble.
16 May your deeds be shown to your servants,
    your splendor to their children.

17 May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us;
    establish the work of our hands for us—
    yes, establish the work of our hands.

Psalm 90:4 has "a thousand years in your sight", which matches the fifth stanza.

Pslam 90:5-6 are the verses that match the eighth stanza, which follows the stanza in your question, the seventh.

This squeeze play shows that the sentiments in the hymn are either not in the same order as the Psalm, or must be found in verse 5. The author of the article said that Watts liked to stick close to the text of the Psalm, so that means the portion of the Psalm matching your stanza could be in verse 5 or anywhere, but should be identifiable.

The words that comes closest to evoking a stream and a dream are "Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death" of verse 5, where sleep matches dream and sweep conveys a flood. Thus I would say that "sons" means people in general. However, the poetic meaning is that time is a Father who has sons - the hours, minutes and seconds of history. Those divisions of time come and go, their passing experienced as the dying of each day.

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