The Biblical word 'perish' has an extremely interesting translational profile. It is the rendering of thirteen different words or word patterns and yet eleven of those account for only twelve verses. The other one hundred and six references come from two words; one Hebrew and one Greek. In this paper I shall aim to look first at the eleven minor definitions of 'perish' before moving on to the two dominant ones.

The first time we encounter 'perish' in the Bible is in Gen 41:36 where Joseph states that food should be stored for seven years so that the land should not perish through famine. The word perish is a rendered of kârath (H3772). The word literally means to cut down or asunder[1]. It is rendered 'cut' on 175 occasions and 'make' 81.

The second occurrence of 'perish' is in Exo 19:21 when it is a rendering of nâphal (H5307). The Lord is instructing Moses not to allow the people to gaze lest they perish. The word literally means to fall[2] which is how it is rendered 355 times. It is also translated 'cast' (24), down(9), divide(4), failed(4) and others.

The third 'perish' is in Exo 21:26 where it describes the condition of a slave that has had an eye perish through being struck. The word perish here is shâchath H7843; which means to decay or ruin[3]. It is rendered destroy(95), corrupt(22) or mar(6).

The next of the more minor definitions of perish occurs in 1Sa 26:10, 27:1; it is used by David to describe a possible fate of someone in battle. The word rendered perish is sâphâh (H5595) but it is used in contrast to death. The word literally means 'to scrape' or to 'snatch away'[4]; thus David is probably viewing this person as being captured by the enemy. It is otherwise rendered: consume(5), destroy(5), add(3)

Another word rendered 'perish' is ‛âbar (H5674) which really means to transition between two things[5]. It is generally rendered: over(177), pass(154), passed(117), go(52) and others. However in Job 36:12 it is used to describe the fate of the wicked by the sword. Thus it is describing that transition between life and death.

The last of the Hebrew words that have a minor 'perish' rendering is dâmâh (H1820) which occurs in Psa 49:12,20. On other occasions it is part of the expression 'beasts that perish'. Strong's suggest that dâmâh really means to be dumb or silent; in which case that would strike me as a perfectly reasonable translation here: 'beasts that are dumb'. Brown, Driver & Briggs rather suggests the word means to cause to cease or to cut off: which would support 'perish' as a translation. The word is otherwise rendered: cut(5), brought(2), silence(2) and others once.

The first of the minor Greek sources of 'perish' is really an expression 'eiēn eis apōleia' which is literally 'might go into ruin or loss'[6]. The word for ruin and loss is also rendered perdition (8), destruction(5) and waste(2). The phrase was used by Peter to describe his preferred fate of the money he had been offered to purchase the gift of God (Acts 8:20).

Paul offers the next Greek word rendered 'perish'; this time in Acts 13:41. Here he is describing his preferred fate of those that refuse to believe the Gospel. This time the word is aphanizō (G853) and means to 'render unapparent' or 'disappear'. The word is rendered as corrupt(2), disfigure(1), perish(1) and vanisheth(1).

The next word for perish is diaphtheirō (G1311) which means to 'rot thoroughly' or to completely decay[7]. It is used to describe the condition of the outward man in 2Co 4:16. It is also rendered as destroy on three occasions and corrupt twice.

The next Greek expression rendered as 'perish' also focuses upon the notion of decay; but this time describes the condition of heading towards decay. The expression is eis phthora (G1515, G5356) and occurs in Col 2:22 and describes the fate of the law (which of course is designed to restrict the outward man whom we saw in the previous paragraph is rotting thoroughly!) Phthora is also rendered corruption(7) and destroyed(1).

The final of the minor Greek sources of 'perish' is really 'utterly perish' and has a similar root to the previous word. It is kataphtheirō (G2704) which means to 'rot down'[8]. The word is used in 2Pe 2:12 to describe the outcome of false teachers; whom we are told just 'rot down in their own corruption'. The word is also rendered 'corrupt' on one occasion.

Reading the above one might readily imagine that just about every form of perishing has been covered. We have seen people being cut, falling down, being beaten, dying, entering perdition, rotting thoroughly, beginning to rot and even rotting down to nothing. Yet none of the above is the dominant meaning of 'perish'.

The dominant meaning of 'perish' in the Bible is provided by 'âbad H6 and the Aramaic equivalent ăbad H7. This is described by Strong as a primitive root meaning to wander away or to lose oneself. The word is rendered perish(98), destroy(60), lost(9) and a number of others once.

The commonest Greek source of the word perish is similar but rather more aggressive. The word is apollumi (G622); which essentially means to 'cut away'[9]. The word is rendered perish(33), lose(28) and destroy(26). We see that the end effect is thus the same as 'âbad; namely that you should be 'apart from'. The difference is that in the Hebrew the focus is that one should put oneself in that position; the Greek view is rather that you could be put in that situation.

I think that in many ways this word study forms a message in its own right. There are many ways in which people and things can and do perish. Many of them are violent and, to use a modern expression, 'totally gross'. Nonetheless, from the Biblical perspective, by far the commonest method of perishing is to cut oneself off or to be cut off from the fellowship of God and His people. May this encourage us in our pursuit of the lost.


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