King David in letter S, Monaco Lorenzo, Antiphonary, 1396
The Seven Penitential Psalms, attributed to King David in popular imagination, are used in private and liturgical devotion. In Books of Hours, illuminations show David at prayer, or playing his harp, pointing to his lips (Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise Ps. 51:16) or to his eyes, (My eyes are wasted with grief and worn away because of all my enemies Ps. 6:7).
Later Books of Hours portray David in his sins.
It happened one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof of the king's house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; and the woman was very beautiful. 2 Samuel 11:2
David takes Bathsheba and she conceives. David sends for her husband Uriah who serves in the army. Following army custom, Uriah does not sleep with his wife while he is home, saving his strength for battle. David even tries to get Uriah drunk so he'll go to his wife. When David's plan fails, he sends Uriah back to the front with a message to the commander of the army, instructing him to place Uriah on the front lines. Uriah is killed, and David marries Bathsheba.
Nathan the prophet confronts David with this story. “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his morsel, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared it for the man who had come to him.”
Then David's anger was greatly kindled against the man; and he said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; and he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”
Nathan said to David, “YOU ARE THE MAN.” 2 Samuel 12:1-7a
"The waters have risen up to my neck" Psalm 61:1 (not a penitential psalm) Unknown Illustrator of the History Bible, Utrecht, 1443
The Seven Penitential Psalms were believed to have been David's lamentations of repentance for his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah, and for his other sins.
Of David's repentance Gottfried of Admont (d. 1165) writes:
David, king and prophet, was a frail stalk of grass when he saw Bathsheba, and took her, and killed Uriah by the sword of the children of Ammon, committing at the same time two wicked sins, adultery and homicide. Then was David frail grass. But afterward he was made a firm tree, when Nathan came to him, rebuking him out of the mouth of the Lord, by whose words he was enflamed with so great a fire of penitence that he lay on the ground for seven days, not eating bread nor drinking water. Look, he who was a frail stalk, to how great a treelike strength has he come through penitence.
While the Seven Penitential Psalms are sometimes associated with the Seven Deadly Sins, they also form a kind of spiritual ladder. Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly (1351-1420) for example, assigns successive virtues to embrace with each psalm - fear of punishment (6) sorrow for sin, then confession and remission (32) hope of grace, then more fear, followed by hope again (38) love of purity, mercy bestowed (51) longing for heaven (102) distrust of your own strength and confidence in divine mercy (130) and joy (143).
"Open thou my lips" Unknown Illustrator of the Burnet Psalter, early 15th century
Psalm 51 is probably the most well-known of the Penitential psalms. The psalm is recited by the congretation on Ash Wednesday in The Book of Common Prayer liturgy, and chanted at Lauds in the Daily Office. Traditionally the Seven Penitential Psalms were used devotionally on Fridays in Lent, and of course, at any time for personal devotion.
“O, Lord, open thou our lips.” I still hear my childhood rector's beloved voice, and our response, “and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.” For decades now, before my feet touch the floor in the morning, I whisper lines from Psalm 51 to dedicate my day to God. Open my lips, O Lord, and my mouth will proclaim your praise. Create in my a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me...
I hope you will come to love the Seven Penitential Psalms and use them to grow in grace.
The waters have risen up to my neck, or, 2 Samuel 22:5-20, Unknown Illustrator of Petrus Comestor's Bible Historiale, French, 1372