This surely counts as a difficult verse in the Bible. In Isaiah 63:17, the prophet asks:
O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways
and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Even in context, it’s a stark question to put to God. It seems to be a confession of sin (“we wandered from your ways, we do not fear you”) and a shifting of the blame onto God (“you made us do it, you hardened our hearts”). You can hear the theologians’ jaws getting tense from here. And with good reason: if the speaker in this verse is saying that God is to blame for causing people to sin, then this verse contains a teaching that contravenes a whole lot of clear teaching from elsewhere in the Bible.
To sort this out, I call two witnesses, one Calvinist and one Wesleyan. The Calvinist is Calvin, whose commentary on this verse is characteristically fearless. First he discards the proposal that the speaker must be a blaspheming unbeliever. That would “rescue” the verse, he admits, by making it a kind of quotation from an unreliable source (sort of like the phrase “There is no God” in the verse, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”). But the context won’t allow for that move. These are Israelites without guile speaking. Calvin jumps right in:
…when they trace their sins to the wrath of God, they do not intend to free themselves from blame, or to set aside their guilt. But the Prophet employs a mode of expression which is of frequent occurrence; for in the Scriptures it is frequently said that God drives men into error, (2 Thessalonians 2:11;) â€œgives them up to a reprobate mind,â€ (Romans 1:28;) and â€œhardens them.â€ (Romans 9:18.) When believers speak in this manner, they do not intend to make God the author of error or of sin, as if they were innocent, or to free themselves from blame; but they look higher, and rather acknowledge that it is by their own fault that they are estranged from God and deprived of his Spirit, and that this is the reason why they are plunged into every kind of evils.
What Calvin says presupposes a compatibilist account of human responsibility for sure, but you have to love the way he goes straight for the key pastoral point: sinners are to blame for their sin.
For the Wesleyan witness, I call John Oswalt, author of a two-volume commentary on Isaiah. “Whatever else this verse claims,” says Oswalt, “it does not claim that the people are not responsible for their sinfulness … No one could read this book and believe that Isaiah thought the people were forced to sin by God.” Oswalt points first to Calvin’s commentary, makes sure that he has underlined the need for humans to be truly free if they are to be held accountable, and then goes on with this excellent bit of exposition:
Isaiah is obviously at one with the rest of Scripture, which insists that a personâ€™s relationship with God is not a matter of human initiative with an essentially passive deity. If persons turn to God, it is because God in his grace has not given them the desire to do so. These ideas are hard for the Western mind, steeped in human initiative, to accept, but what are the alternatives? On the one hand is dualism (a good god makes us do good things, and a bad god makes us do bad things), and on the other is humanism (â€œI am the captain of my soul; I am the master of my fateâ€). If this biblical way of expressing reality is incomplete and partial, as it necessarily is, it is still a better way of conveying the essential truth of existence than either of these alternatives.
One must also remember that what we have here is not a philosophical treatise, but the cry of a man of God who has seen the fulfillment of the words God had spoken to him at the beginning of his ministry (6:9-10). He has cried out to his people with all his strength and has watched them turn away in amused contempt (cf. 5:19, 30:9-14). He has also seen the enormously addictive power of sin, and the stubbornness of rebellion. In the anguish of those kinds of experiences, he knows that if God were to remain uninvolved, far away in his holy and beautiful palace, these people could not be delivered from their persistent sinning. If we continue to persist in our sin, cries the heartbroken prophet, it must be because God will not intervene to stop it.
(John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1998), 613-614.)
These are both good evangelical theologians who know how to read a hard text without losing their balance. They have plenty to argue with each other about, but they both manage to walk away from Isaiah 63:17 with what the Spirit has to say to the people of God. Their theological systems help rather than hinder them in their ability to exegete a hard passage.