Proverbs 22:28 says, “Remove not the ancient landmark, which thy fathers have set.”
What were the “ancient landmarks?” and why weren’t they to be moved? I have on various occasions read or heard this text referenced when talking about traditional practices created by the fathers of a particular group of people. The context in which this phrase is referenced generally is admonishing people not to make changes to such traditional practices.
For example, Nathan Bangs in 1850 speaks of the Methodist Episcopal Church’s “ancient landmarks” of “doctrine, discipline, or practical piety.” Similarly, I find a sermon published in 1886 in which the “ancient landmarks” were “noble patriotism, religion, and learning.” As recently as this semester, a college student asked me, “But what about the verse that says we aren’t to remove the ancient landmarks?” He had heard that verse quoted often in defense of the traditional lifestyle practices of his background.
A quick look at a dictionary shows that the word “landmark” in modern English may refer to some “object in the landscape that serves as a guide in the direction of one’s course.” Given this English meaning, one can easily see how Proverbs 22:28 and 23:10 in the KJV could be used metaphorically to refer to doctrine or standards that serve as guides.
However, there are at least two problems with this. First, it imports a modern English meaning into the KJV. A quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary online shows that “landmark” in the 1611 KJV referred to “the boundary of a country, estate, etc.; an object set up to mark a boundary line.” Second, it fails to account for the meaning of the Hebrew word behind “landmark,” gebul. This Hebrew word refers to the boundary of a territory or, by metonymy, to a wall or other item which marks such a boundary.
Given this information, it is easy to see the connection between Proverbs 22:28 and passages in Deuteronomy such as the following:
Deuteronomy 19:14: “You shall not move your neighbor’s boundary mark, which the ancestors have set, in your inheritance which you will inherit in the land that the LORD your God gives you to possess.”
Deuteronomy 27:17: “‘Cursed is he who moves his neighbor’s boundary mark.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen.’”
The “landmarks” or “boundary marks” (NASB) were placed in Israel by God (cf. Josh. 13-19) to provide each tribe their inheritance in the promised land of Canaan. Within each tribe, families and individuals also received land whose boundaries were marked with “landmarks.”
Why would God curse the person who moves a neighbor’s landmark? Because it is a form of theft. If you shift the boundary markers, then you can claim more land than was actually allotted to you, or than you acquired by purchase.
In essence, Proverbs 22:28 is saying, “Don’t steal your neighbor’s land.” No matter how old the misuse of this verse, it cannot legitimately be used as a text to warn people against changing traditional beliefs or practices.
You wouldn’t need to know Hebrew to recognize that this verse is talking about property boundaries. Just compare English translations, and you’ll find “ancient boundary stone” in several. Check biblehub.com, and you’ll find plenty of commentaries that make this clear. (Not all of them get it correct, but a good majority do.) Alternately, you could search the Strong’s number associated with “landmarks” and discover that it always means something like border, coast, or limit.
Originally posted at Exegetical Thoughts and Biblical Theology.