A wise professor once said, "What gets your attention, gets you." This is especially true in the book of Jonah. God takes drastic measures to get Jonah's attention. He does so not because he delights in calamity but because he desires our fellowship.
Jonah prophesied in the eighth century B.C., during or shortly before the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.). God called him to preach to Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, which was the most powerful nation on earth. The more we know about Assyria, the more we understand why Jonah was reluctant to preach there. The Assyrians were a fierce, warring people who often treated their captives ruthlessly. Jonah had good reason to be afraid!
But fear was not the only thing that made Jonah reluctant. His attitude reflects the racial prejudice common in his day. The "chosen people" could not imagine that God could care about other nations—especially one as vile and idolatrous as Assyria. So the book of Jonah becomes a powerful illustration of the fact that God does not want "anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9).
The story of Jonah has been the subject of much controversy. Many people reject its historicity, preferring to view it as an allegory or parable. However, two things should be noted about this view. First, few people questioned the historicity of Jonah until the nineteenth century, when liberal scholars launched an attack not only on this book but on every book in the Bible. They objected to its historicity primarily because of the incident of Jonah's being swallowed by a fish. However, even from a natural standpoint this incident is quite possible. In hisIntroduction to the Old Testament, R. K. Harrison points out that there are other reliable records of people being swallowed by large fish and surviving. Second, Jesus himself viewed the story of Jonah as history (Mt 12:38-41; Lk 11:29-30, 32), comparing it to the greater miracle of his resurrection.
We can learn from Jonah, knowing there will be times when we run from God's will and need to return to him.