This is sometimes said to be one of the most difficult verses to understand in the Bible. All the major translations essentially agree on how the verse should be worded, so the problem is not one of understanding what the underlying Hebrew text says, but simply what it means. On the surface, the prophet Isaiah seems to blame God for ancient Israel’s sins, and to claim that it is because of God’s action in some way that we do not properly fear him.
Because the plain meaning of the words seems to contradict the rest of what the Bible teaches – that humans are entirely responsible for their own sins – some commentators have claimed that the passage must be understood as being spoken by those antagonistic to God who simply want to blame him for their wrongdoings. But the context shows this explanation is impossible. The section begins, in verse 7, with the words “I will tell of the kindnesses of the Lord, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the Lord has done for us” and continues in this kind of positive and devout manner till the speaker says “you, Lord, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name” (vs. 16) immediately before asking “Why, Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts …” (vs. 17). So, there is no sign of antagonism toward God at all – simply the asking of a question we would not expect Isaiah to ask.
The best way to understand this scripture is probably as referring to the fact that the people of Israel’s desire to do right – no matter how weak the desire may have been – was rendered useless by God’s continued displeasure with them, and the resulting lack of his help that they desperately needed if they were to do what was right (see vs. 10). As such, the statement is a strong affirmation of Israel’s own sinfulness and need of God rather than an accusation of God’s action in “making” them sin.
This meaning of Isaiah’s words can be seen to be likely because the question is immediately followed by the request “Return for the sake of your servants” (vs. 18) – a request for God’s help as in times past (vs. 9). So we might paraphrase Isaiah’s seemingly strange question as “Will you not help us again so that we are not left to our own wandering and hardness of heart?”
Certainly, there is nothing to be found anywhere else in the book of Isaiah that would suggest this is not the meaning of Isaiah 63:17. In fact, the situation is clearly summarized in Isaiah’s very next chapter where the prophet speaks on behalf of Israel, saying: “You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? … for you have hidden your face from us and have given us over to our sins” (Isaiah 64:5–7).
Rather than an accusation that God was causing Israel to sin, Isaiah’s message is clearly that sinful Israel needed God’s help to do right – a lesson we can also learn from this powerful biblical book, and one we should never forget.