STORY BEHIND THE SONG: A man saved by his song
“He could have called ten thousand angels
To destroy the world and set Him free.
He could have called ten thousand angels,
But He died alone for you and me.”
It is rare when a man is led to Christ by his own composition.
But Ray Overholt, author of “Ten Thousand Angels,” was indeed led to accept Christ as his Savior and has surely led countless others to the cross — and still continues to today.
When Overholt was interviewed by The Log in 2008, he was 84 and blind. He passed away six months later.
Born in 1924 in Gaines, Mich., Overholt’s mother, Clara, was a singer and played piano and encouraged her son as a young boy.
“My dad bought me a $3 guitar, and I began singing when I was 11,” Overholt told The Log at that time. “I also listened to Gene Autry’s music and was inspired by him.”
By the time he was 10, Overholt had written his first song, “The Lonesome Cowboy,” and had learned to play keyboard and harmonica.
Growing up on a farm in Middleville, Mich., southeast of Grand Rapids, Overholt first performed in town halls and at meetings. His group, The Grand River Boys, sang on radio station WFUR in Grand Rapids. He continued to write songs, including “Dreaming of You” and “Finance Company Blues,” and his first song published was “Will the Lord Look Down and Frown on Me.”
Later, Overholt hosted a TV program called “Ray’s Round Up” where he welcomed such guests as Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Stuart Hamblen and many others. He also appeared on Kate Smith’s national program. After leaving his show, Overholt entered the nightclub circuit.
In 1958, at the height of his show-business career, Overholt wrote his now-famous song, “Ten Thousand Angels.”
“I was playing in a country band at a tavern, a dance hall, in Battle Creek, when I wrote the song,” Overholt said.
“Why God selected me to write the song, I don’t know. I drank a lot, was a profane individual and I needed a Savior.”
Overholt says he didn’t know much about this man named Jesus, so he turned to the Bible to do research.
“I couldn’t write a song and not know the man I was writing about.”
The Bible says Jesus could have called legions of angels to rescue Him, and it was this thought that Overholt used for his song.
“Thinkest thou that I cannot now pray to my Father, and he shall presently give me more than twelve legions of angels?” — Matthew 26:53.
“I opened the Bible and began to read the portion of Scripture that describes Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, telling Peter to put away his sword,” Overholt said. “I read where Jesus told Peter that he could ask his Father and he would send twelve legions of angels. I didn’t know at the time that that would have been more than 72,000 angels.”
After reading the passage, Overholt says he thought “He Could Have Called Ten Thousand Angels” would be a good title for the song.
“I wrote the first verse and put it in my guitar case,” Overholt said. “I then gave the club my notice that I was quitting. While I was trying to find out who this man Jesus was and writing the song, I was saved.”
Overholt finished the song and sent it to a publishing house which agreed to publish it.
“They bound the hands of Jesus in the garden where He prayed;
They led Him through the streets in shame.
They spat upon the Savior so pure and free from sin;
They said, “Crucify Him; He’s to blame.”
Overholt’s song describes the crucifixion and the suffering Jesus endured. His theme is the willingness of Jesus to endure and suffer alone, never giving a thought to calling ten thousand angels.
“When they nailed Him to the cross, His mother stood nearby,
He said, “Woman, behold thy son!”
He cried, “I thirst for water,” but they gave Him none to drink.
Then the sinful work of man was done.”
“People need to remember the power Jesus had, as the Son of God,” Overholt said. “He was so powerful, He could have cried out for ten thousand angels, but He stayed on the cross — alone.”
To the howling mob He yielded; He did not for mercy cry.
The cross of shame He took alone.
And when He cried, “It’s finished,” He gave Himself to die;
Salvation’s wondrous plan was done.”
Many have recorded the song, including Kenneth Copeland, The Cathedrals and Overholt’s favorites, Kate Smith and Janie Fricke.
Overholt became a traveling singer and preacher and wrote more than 200 other songs, none quite so powerful as “Ten Thousand Angels,” including “Hallelujah Square” which was nominated for a Dove Award, “Tell My Daddy the Church Bells are Ringing” and “God’s Chair in the Sky.”
The Overholts were still singing and continued in their ministry when he was interviewed.
“We have been so blessed to see people surrender their lives to God,” Overholt said. “It’s been a wonderful life. We are slowing down some, but I am not ready to give up yet.”
Overholt said he wants to be remembered as a gospel singer/songwriter “who was inspired by our soon-coming King. I am so thankful for what God and Jesus have done for my family and me through the wonderful guidance of His Holy Spirit.”
And we remember Overholt as a man God saved — when He sent him “Ten Thousand Angels.”