The Incense Altar and the Census Tax (Exodus 30)

Chuck Cain On July 26, 2015 the Adult Sunday School Class reviewed the incense altar and the census tax in Exodus 30.

The first is a description of the incense altar. One would wonder why it is described here rather than in Chapter 25, where the other four furniture items inside the tabernacle are described (the ark of the covenant, the mercy seat, the bread table, and the lamp). This description forms an inclusio with 27:20-21 which speaks of the priests’ daily tending to the lamps; whereas, 30:7-8 speaks of the priests’ daily tending to burning incense. In the midst of this inclusio in Chapters 28-29 is the description of the priests’ garments and consecration. This is to say that a description of the priests’ daily duties serve as bookends surrounding their ordination.

The burning of incense likely symbolizes prayer, both of the people’s prayer to God and our Lord’s intercession for his people. The linkage of incense and prayer is found in other passages such as Psalm 141:1-2, Luke 1:5-11, and Revelation 5:8 and 8:3-4.

Note that the design, as well as the name, of this article of furniture is almost identical to that of the bronze altar in the courtyard. They are both square and have horns. Perhaps this is to remind us that a life of prayer depends on a sacrifice for sin.

The second subject discussed in Chapter 30 is the census tax. In Exodus 30:11-16 the LORD tells Moses that when a census is taken each person is to pay a half-shekel tax to “ransom his life” (verse 12) and “to make atonement for your lives” (verses 15 and 16) “that there be no plague among them when you number them.” These frightening statements are likely a reminder that the people are not their own, they belong to God who has redeemed them. The taking of a census could tempt pride in numbers and achievement. The tax would remind them that they were bought with a price (1 Corinthians 6:19-20 and 7:23).

In 2 Samuel 24 David confesses that he has sinned after taking a census of the people. Likely the sin was the failure to require each person to pay the census tax. Also see Matthew 17:24-27 where it is recorded that Christ paid the half-shekel tax both for himself and Peter. — Chuck Cain

Listen to “The Incense Altar and the Census Tax” (Exodus 30) at

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