Was soll ich aus dir machen, Ephraim?, BWV 89, relates how Jesus tells the parable of the wicked servant (Matthew 18:23-35) as an answer to Peter’s question: “Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?” The central theme of the cantata, therefore, probes the tension between deserved punishment and merciful forgiveness. First performed in October of 1723 in Leipzig, the source of text for the outer movements is certain, while the text for the recitative/aria pairings of the soprano and alto is unknown. However, it is believed this may have been based on older material from Bach’s Weimar years and the monetary metaphors in the alto and soprano solo movements are rather reminiscent of the poetry Salomo Franck, the keeper of the mint and city councilor in Weimar and Bach’s favorite collaborator.
The opening bass aria text comes from Chapter 11 of the prophet Hosea: “How can I give you up, O Ephraim!… How can I make you like Admah! How can I treat you like Zeboim! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender.” In this context ‘Ephraim’ is an abbreviation for the northern part of Israel, ‘Admah’ and ‘Zeboim’ are towns that, as mentioned in Deuteronomy, suffered the same fate – destruction – as Sodom and Gomorrah. God is essentially pondering what he should do with those existing communities that continue to show signs of sinfulness. Bach illustrates God’s wrath in the collision of three separate instrumental motifs that happen simultaneously and are then freely interchanged and combined between instrument groups, but never with any sense of resolution: 1) the turbulent sixteenths of the continuo, 2) the cries of parallel thirds in the oboes and 3) the five-note upward arpeggios in the strings that end with a plunging downward fifth, seventh or ninth. Meanwhile the music comes to a temporary halt at the end of each anguished question posed by the bass, representing God’s divided mind.
The cantata now shifts to the parable of the wicked steward as the alto recitative makes a compelling case for God’s right to vengeance. Listen for the sharpness at the mention of the mocking of his name that inflames the fires of vengeance. The threat of punishment implied here becomes clearer in the inexorable, hammering semi-tone motives of the alto aria; the text of which derives from James 2:13: “For he shall have judgment without mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.”
With the soprano recitative, the gloom of the opening is left behind as we are reminded that we are duty bound to "forgive them that trespass against us." Given the seriousness of the text – a balance sheet of sins committed against the drops of Jesus’ redeeming blood – the aria for soprano and oboe leads us to more welcoming pastures with its dance-like 6/8 meter and songlike melody. The concluding chorale extends this sigh of relief. While the prevailing mode is minor, Bach harmonizes every cadence in the major mode. Not even the mention of "Tod, Teufel, Höll und Sünde" [death, devil, hell, and sin] causes the simple harmonic textures to yield to chromatic intensification.