Many gnuplot terminals (aqua, pm, qt, x11, windows, wxt, ...) open separate display windows on the screen into which plots are drawn. The persist option tells gnuplot to leave these windows open when the main program exits. It has no effect on non-interactive terminal output. For example if you issue the command
gnuplot -persist -e 'plot [-5:5] sinh(x)'
gnuplot will open a display window, draw the plot into it, and then exit, leaving the display window containing the plot on the screen. Depending on the terminal type, some mousing operations may still be possible in the persistent window. However operations like zoom/unzoom that require redrawing the plot are generally not possible because the main program has already exited.
You can also specify persist or nopersist at the time you set a new terminal type. For example
set term qt persist size 700,500