The Inviolability of the Landmark
Biblical law clearly protects a man's property. The private ownership of property is both established and safeguarded by God in his law-word. An important aspect of this protection of property are the Scriptures concerning a man's landmarks:
Thou shalt not remove thy neighbour's landmark, which they of old time have set in thine inheritance, which thou shalt inherit in the land that the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it. (Dt. 19:14) Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour's landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen. (Dt. 27:17)
Remove not the old landmarks: and enter not into the fields of the fatherless. (Pr. 23:10)
The "landmark" was a large stone or heap of stones that served to establish the boundaries of a man's property (his land). By means of these landmarks, a definite distinction was made between the property belonging to one man and the property belonging to another. In Biblical law, God forbids a man to "remove" his neighbor's landmark. The Hebrew word translated "remove" means to move away or to move back. It refers to the devious and insidious practice of a man's shifting the landmark of adjoining property so as to add to his own land. Thus, the law of the landmarks relates to the theft of another man's property and is a specific case-law application of the Eighth Commandment, "Thou shalt not steal." The general commandment forbidding theft means, among other things, that we do not take the property of our neighbor by moving his landmarks. So important is the law against removing landmarks that God pronounces a curse on all who commit it (Dt. 27:17).
Property and Life
A man's property is the means of his livelihood. In the agricultural setting of the ancient Israelites this was clear. A man made his living from land given to him by God according to his inheritance in the promised land. He farmed the land and from its increase supported himself and his family. Therefore, to take a man's property by moving his landmark was to assail the ability of the man to sustain his life and the lives of all who depended on him. J. A. Thompson notes, "There was a close connection between a man's possessions as his means of support and the very life of the man."1
It is ever true that a man's property is the means of his livelihood and to take a man's property is to strike at the very life of a man. Biblical law protects a man's property from theft so that he may be secure in his possessions and be able to use the property providentially given to him by the hand of the Lord for the glory of God, the well-being of his family, and the advance of God's kingdom. Biblical law guards the property of a covenant-keeping man so that he can fulfill the command of God to take dominion over that which God has committed to his care.
Civil Government and Property
Civil government was established by God to enforce the law of God apposite the civil sphere. The civil magistrate is a minister of God charged with the duty of visiting God's vengeance on those who do evil against their neighbor (Rom. 13:1-6). Civil government is to protect the life and property of the citizens by being a terror to all who would seek to take the life or property of others. Therefore, the civil magistrate is responsible to enforce the Biblical laws relating to the theft of property, including the law of landmarks. God has decreed in his marvelous law that a man should be secure in his property. The duty of the state is to see that each law-abiding citizen enjoys this security by enforcing God's law.
It is tragic for the citizens when their civil government fails to provide this kind of security for them. When the laws of God relating to theft and its punishment are ignored and the wicked seize the property of their neighbor with impunity, or without required restitution when apprehended, it is a sorry thing indeed. But even more tragic is when the civil government itself is the agent of theft! When the magistrate becomes the one who unlawfully (i.e., as defined by God's law) seizes the possessions and wealth of the very ones he should protect, it is a horrid perversion of his office. Instead of being secure in their property, those who live under such a civil government live in the fear of the unjust seizure of their wealth by government edict, backed by government power.
This apparently was the situation in Judah in the days of Hosea the prophet. Hosea says: "The princes of Judah were like them that remove the bound: therefore I will pour out my wrath upon them like water" (Hos. 5:10). The words "remove the bound" are the same words that appear in Deuteronomy 19:14 and could be translated "move the landmark." Therefore, Hosea is referring to the Biblical law concerning landmarks. The prophet states that the magistrates of Judah "are like" those who move their neighbor's landmarks. This indicates that these rulers are not actually moving landmarks but that their actions are tantamount to that crime. What does Hosea mean?
Some believe that Hosea employs the law of Deuteronomy 19:14 in a metaphorical sense. Leon Woods states, "Judah's leaders, however, were not shifting physical property lines but spiritual lines established by God, changing the boundary between right and wrong, between true and false religion, between the true God and the idols."2 However much this may be true, it is too constricted an interpretation to limit Hosea's words to the idea of changing spiritual boundaries only. Calvin interprets Hosea 5:10 as follows: "But by the metaphor of boundaries in the fields, the Prophet refers to the whole political order. The meaning is, that all things were now in a state of disorder and confusion among the Jews; because their leaders, who ruled the people and ought to have kept them in obedience, had destroyed the whole order of things."3 Calvin sees the verse as a reference to the disorder of the whole political realm. This may be the case, but it appears too broad an interpretation.
The best approach to the text is to take it in its primary sense as referring to the unlawful taking of property. After all, that is the definite meaning of the Biblical law of landmarks, and there is no contextual reason why we should not understand Hosea's words in accord with the denotation of these laws. Poole recognizes the metaphorical interpretations of this passage, but then states that the more certain import is that "by injustice and violence [the princes] were seizing what was another's."4 In accord with Poole (while recognizing the possibility of a metaphorical sense), we believe that the text indicates (at least) the unjust, tyrannical seizure of the lawful property of the people by the rulers of Judah. The text does not indicate the precise nature of their crime against the citizens of Judah; it only says that these rulers "were like them that remove the bound." The magistrates were not actually moving landmarks, but the effect was the same—they were stealing the property of the citizens. Perhaps the princes were seizing the wealth of the people through oppressive taxation, through seizure of land for "public use," or through false accusations. Whichever, the great horror here is that property was being stolen by the ones who were responsible to protect it—the civil rulers! In accord with the curse pronounced in Deuteronomy 27:17, God declares that his wrath will be poured out on these scoundrels.
Instruction for Today
The law of the landmarks and its application to rulers in Hosea 5:10 is instructive for us today. First, it indicates that civil rulers can be guilty of stealing from the people they govern. That it is possible for the state to steal from the people it governs is denied by the modern humanistic state. Having rejected God and Biblical law, the state believes that it is the ultimate owner of all things within its boundaries and the source of all "property rights." In the place of the sovereign God, we now have the sovereign state that answers to no one and serves no one but itself. Such a state believes that all the wealth of the citizens is there to use (seize by whatever means necessary) as the civil government pleases. But God's law exposes the evil of this notion. God is the ultimate owner of all things and the source of all property rights. He has given wealth into the hands of individuals and families, and this private property is protected by his law against all theft. If the state ignores God's law and takes the wealth and property of the people unjustly, then it is guilty of theft.5
Second, the means by which the state steals from the people it governs are varied. One means is oppressive, excessive taxation. How can we determine excessive taxation? Two questions will help us here. One, does the taxation exceed ten percent of the citizens' income? If God himself requires only a tithe to finance the work of the kingdom, it could not be possible that he would authorize the state to exact a tax exceeding ten percent to finance the work of civil government. Two, does the tax fund programs and activities that are outside the Biblical parameters for the state? If so, then the state has no right to tax for the support of these things, and this makes such taxes an unjust seizure of the wealth of the people. Another means is the redistribution of wealth by way of taxation and social programs aimed at "economic and social justice." Bastiat, the French economist, correctly labeled such redistribution as "legal plunder."6 Another means is the property tax. Property tax is a claim of ownership by the state. In essence, property tax is a rental fee we pay to the state for the privilege of "owning" and using a portion of land within the boundaries of the state. Property tax is like moving the landmark because it is a claim of ultimate ownership (not to mention the confiscation of the property of those who are delinquent in paying their property taxes!). Other means of state stealing are the taking of property for public use (based on the doctrine of "eminent domain"); the power to seize the property of citizens who have never been convicted of a crime (based on "forfeiture laws"); and the control and manipulation of the money supply—to name some of the more prominent means.
Third, the philosophies of Marxism, communism, and socialism are dedicated in principle to removing all landmarks in a nation. The landmark set the bounds for private property. Landmarks are a testimony to the existence of private property. The goal of these anti-Christian world views is to eliminate all private property and thereby eliminate all landmarks. In theory, the ownership of the land and all property passes from the individual to the group, but in reality all is claimed and controlled by the state. Perhaps the most powerful, single law in the Bible that stands against communism and socialism is the law of the landmarks.
Fourth, God's wrath is against all magistrates and governments that steal the wealth of the citizens. In casting off God's law in regard to the protection of property, these rulers make war against God and his Anointed (Ps. 2:1-3). Instead of serving as God's minister to protect the individual land and property of the people, they become those who plunder the people, all under the name of "law," "justice," and "the common good." These bandits will neither endure nor triumph. Jesus Christ has been commissioned to crush such thieves with a rod (scepter) of iron (Ps. 2:9). The triumph of Jesus Christ is sure. The day is coming when only godly magistrates who honor and serve Christ shall govern. In that day our property rights under God's law will be fully protected. No one shall be allowed to move our landmarks with impunity. But until that day, we must contend with magistrates who are "like them that remove the bound."
As God's servants, let us preach God's law concerning landmarks, expose the rebellion of these rulers against God and their thievery against the people, labor to elect Christian magistrates who are committed to protecting our property according to God's law, and pray for the righteous judgment of God against those who use the office of magistrate to steal their neighbor's property—against all magistrates who are "like them that move the bound [landmark]."
1. J. A. Thompson, Deuteronomy: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL, 1974), 217.
2. Leon J. Wood, "Hosea," in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, 12 vols., ed. Frank E. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids, 1985), 7:192.
3. John Calvin, Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, 2 vols., trans. John Owen (Grand Rapids,  1989), 1:203.
4. Matthew Poole, Commentary on the Holy Bible, 3 vols. (Edinburgh,  1990), 2:863.
5. In the ancient world, the moving of landmarks was often hard to detect. Some have suggested that this is the reason why the moving of landmarks was included in the list of curses declared in Dt. 27:15-26. All of this sins mentioned in Dt. 27:15-26 refer to acts that are often done in secret and are hard to detect by men. Nevertheless, God sees and he will punish them. Because the state plunders the people under the guise of law, most citizens never detect what is happening to them. But theft is theft, whether done by individuals under the cover of night or by the state under the cover of legislation.
6. Frederic Bastiat, The Law (Irvington-on-Hudson , 1981).
- William O. Einwechter
William O. Einwechter serves as a teaching elder at Immanuel Free Reformed Church in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. He is also the vice president of the National Reform Association and the editor of The Christian Statesman. He can be contacted at [email protected].